HARTFORD, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Teachers and school districts reacted and responded on Monday to the news this week that students will no longer need COVID face masks in school, starting Wednesday. For one group of schools, the decision feels an extra bit like victory.
“I’m not sure if we had a direct impact, but I’m hopeful that it helped,” said Hartford Superintendent Andy Cook, one of 31 teachers who penned a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett in January calling for mask guidance. “It was a great opportunity for us and our school districts to advocate on behalf of our families.”
Cook’s signature was on the letter, penned in late January, calling for a “pathway to normalcy” consisting of strict guidelines that school districts like his could follow to accelerate the path to unmasking students. That first try was followed in February by many of the individual schools on that first letter. Individual school districts sent their own version of the same letter, calling for the same thing: A clear set of rules for how to end the mask requirement.
The schools—all part of Warren-Saratoga-Washington-Hamilton-Essex BOCES—have rallied hard on behalf of parents who feel, as some superintendents and staff have vocally agreed, that students should not have to wear masks in schools if they do not have to do so anywhere else. The letters weren’t just about what superintendents want, but about calls from the parents around the districts.
“I’d really like to think that the letters helped,” said Warrensburg Superintendent Amy Langworthy. “We spent a lot of time drafting those letters, advocating on behalf of our school communities. We are a public entity, so I think it’s important to advocate.”
Langworthy wishes that the mask mandate could have been lifted immediately as of Monday, but understands the need for procedure, as the state prepares and formalizes some new guidance ahead of mask-off day. Both Warrensburg and Hartford are ready to welcome their students in with full faces forward first thing on Wednesday – but also make note that some may not be ready.
“We’re set to (have masks off),” said Cook. “Certainly anyone that continues wishing to wear a mask or have their child wear a mask, while it’s not mandatory, that is their right.”
Langworthy has heard from some parents concerned over the continued use of fake masks at Warrensburg. When parents came to a recent board meeting and were able to speak face-to-face with staff like Langworthy, who sympathizes with the situation, things were able to turn from hostility to a mutual understanding.
“I think once they understood that we’re on the same side here, they were respectful and made good points,” Langworthy said. “At the end of the day, we’re really working toward the same thing.”
What sticks around when the masks come off?
Both Langworthy and Cook agree that removing the face masks is huge for returning some semblance of normalcy after two long years, but they also agree on one other thing. The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lasting mark on kids’ psychologies, and on what they’ve learned.
“I think that the impact is going to be felt for years to come,” said Langworthy, who previously served as principal at Warrensburg Elementary School before becoming Superintendent. “I don’t think anybody who works with kids every day can realistically say, ‘Okay, masks are off and everything is back to normal.'”
That’s true in multiple ways, Langworthy says. One is educational. The quality of learning shifts when students go from classroom to online learning, especially when not everyone has parents consistently at home, or reliable internet. Even with kids back in school, she points out the effect of having to spend a full week in quarantine, and how much learning is missed in that amount of time.
Another issue is social. When students aren’t around each other, or can’t play or communicate as freely as parents and teachers remember doing, for two years of their lives, there’s a lasting effect left on how those kids have socially developed once they’re able to see each other under “normal” circumstances again.
“I think it’s just important to know it might not be an easy transition,” said Cook. “Kindergarten, pre-K, all they’ve known is masks in school.”
Both superintendents weighed in last month on how their districts have been affected by ongoing statewide and national teacher shortages. While the mask situation may have moved the needle on that front, Langworthy feels that issue is far more complex of a beast.
“I think that the issue is a lot bigger than COVID,” Langworthy said. “It was existing prior to COVID, and the pandemic exacerbated it. There are bigger issues that play into the teacher shortage.”