GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – It’s back-to-school week in the North Country. This year, the New York State Department of Health is no longer requiring face mask usage to limit COVID-19 virus spread in schools. While department Commissioner Mary T. Bassett, M.D. encourages schools to operate under the CDC’s Operational Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, the masks are no longer a must.

In the North Country, that good news is some time coming. In late January, 31 school districts that are part of Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES penned a letter calling for the state to create guidelines for school districts to follow in order to lift mandates, at a point in time where face masks had already become optional at businesses and many gathering spaces. It wasn’t about getting them off immediately, so much as having some sort of path forward at a time where one wasn’t apparent.

The districts called the requested plan a “pathway to normalcy.” Now, the letter’s author says a new school year is starting at the other end of that road.

“When the CDC guidance for reopening schools was released earlier this summer, we were very encouraged that there was no requirement for masking and that many of the recommendations were based on current best health and safety practices (i.e. staying home when not feeling well) and the recommendations did not require any additional protocols within schools. We waited with cautious optimism that the NYSDOH and NYSED recommendations would follow suit, which they did, and which allows school districts to focus our attention on academics and ensuring that we are meeting the needs of our students,” said Hartford Central School District Superintendent Andrew Cook on Tuesday.

At Hartford, Tuesday was the first day of school. A county away, Warrensburg Central School District was still a day out, and Superintendent Amy Langworthy came out of a Superintendent’s Day meeting feeling extremely positive. She says that the road to masklessness has been a point of unanimous attention for school staff and parents alike.

“It’s a big sigh of relief,” Langworthy said. “I haven’t heard any negative feedback from parents. Certainly, like any flu season, everyone will be expected to be mindful of keeping people healthy, and if anyone does choose to wear a mask for any kind of personal or family reason, that will be supported, too.”

The BOCES letter wasn’t met with an official response from Gov. Kathy Hochul – to whom it was addressed, alongside the education commissioner. In the weeks that followed, Cook pointed to meetings between Hochul and state education groups, such as the School Board Association and the state Superintendents Council.

On the eve of another school year, Langworthy said that she feels confident that she and her 30 fellow superintendents made a mark that mattered, and that the letter did help schools reach this point. She feels good about handling maskless classrooms – not only in terms of mitigating spread, but also in terms of students who do stay masked not being looked down on for doing so.

“Whether it’s in schools or in the community, people are used to seeing some face masks in the community. Everyone’s at the point where they respect peoples’ decision, one way or another. I really don’t see bullying being a problem.”

As of Tuesday, the CDC’s COVID-19 infection map listed four of WSWHE BOCES’ five resident counties as having a low rate of COVID-19 infection. Warren, Washington, Hamilton and Saratoga counties were listed at low rates of coronavirus exposure, while Essex County was listed at a medium level. The website determines risk level based on case rate per 100,000 population, new COVID-19 admissions, and percentage of staffed inpatient beds in use by coronavirus patients.