Is it the right time to lift the school mask mandate?

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday that the state would no longer require masks to be worn in schools — with the exception of SUNY and CUNY schools — starting March 2.

Hochul’s announcement no doubt came as a relief to some parents, who were concerned that perhaps the state’s school mask mandate would never be lifted. For others, it may feel like a reason to be concerned for their childrens’ health moving forward.

So why was this decision made now? Did the state’s COVID numbers fall below some sort of metric to trigger this decision? Was the decision influenced by the lawsuit brought by a group of parents seeking to eliminate the mandate? A state Supreme Court judge, Thomas Rademaker, did rule that the mask mandate was “unconstitutional” — not a comment on the efficacy of masks, but on the way the state put the mandate in place. The state was granted a stay that has allowed the mandate to remain in place during the state’s appeal process.

In her announcement, Hochul pointed to discussions with parents, school superintendents, unions and experts as factors behind the decision. She also highlighted a variety of data points that seem to indicate that New York’s case numbers and hospitalizations have dropped to pre-holiday surge, pre-Omicron levels.

“In fact, on Jan. 7, we had 90,000 positive cases in the state of New York,” she said. “Now look where we are today — a 98% drop in cases, based on the number from Feb. 26.”

She said with hospitalizations, there’s been “48 straight days of a downward trend.” And vaccination numbers are high — more than 88% of New Yorkers have had at least one vaccine dose, more than 75% are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

Hochul touched on the seven-day average number of cases in children ages 5 to 18.

“Let’s go back to the start of the school year, we had 832 cases when we first instituted our mask requirements for kids,” she said. “We went up to 14,167 cases on Jan. 10. … And now that number has been reduced to 229 cases.”

She noted that the state has distributed 20 million COVID-19 test kits to schools, and schools should “never have a shortage” of them.

Hochul also referenced new guidance released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

Rather than endorsing universal masking in schools, the CDC is now only recommending masks in schools located within counties that are at high risk of COVID transmission.

We seem to be entering yet another new phase in this pandemic, one that sees us really returning to “normal” life. Hochul’s announcement reflects that.

A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll indicates that most Americans think the virus will continue to circulate as a mild illness. In early February, Essex County Health Department Program Coordinator Andrea Whitmarsh said that case numbers here were by no means “low,” but the pandemic is approaching an endemic period.

Hochul essentially said that the state will be turning control over to counties moving forward.

“There are some counties in this state that have a higher rate of transmission. We will allow them the flexibility to determine what’s best for their county, we would encourage them to take a look at this and follow the CDC, but this will no longer be a mandate,” she said.

The big question: Is now the right time for the state to lift the school mask mandate?

Those who believe that masking should’ve always been a choice likely think this decision is far overdue.

The data seems to suggest that it is the right time.

As with so many other decisions, sometimes, the answer of whether or not a decision came at the right time can only be answered after some time has passed.


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