HARTFORD, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Late Tuesday, the New York State Department of Education released new emergency regulations regarding COVID-19 face mask requirements. Among other things, the new regulations authorize New York State Department of Health Commissioner Mary Bassett to continue enforcing the use of face masks in public schools until as late as April 22.
In the North Country, a group of school districts across five counties has been vocal about the need for a clear roadmap for how to get those masks off. Hartford Superintendent Andy Cook says that the new regulations don’t do anything new to help that effort, but not much to hurt it, either.
“The extension gives the Commissioner of Health the authority to set the policies through the 22nd (of April), so it wasn’t unanticipated,” said Cook on Wednesday. “But it doesn’t say for sure that it will happen. We’re still incredibly hopeful that the mandate will be lifted soon.”
Last month, Cook and 30 other school districts from Warren-Saratoga-Washington-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES put their names on a letter to Hochul and Bassett’s offices, calling for a roadmap of specific steps and criteria for schools to follow in order to let students come to school sans the mask. They did not get a response. Last week, many of those districts tried a new tactic.
“On February 9, 2022, you announced that the state-wide mask mandate would be lifted on February 10, 2022,” the Hartford Central School District wrote in a new letter, penned last week to Hochul and Bassett’s offices. “However, that declaration did not apply to schools, and masks are still required to be worn inside our school buildings. During this press conference, you also noted that the mandate for schools would be reevaluated in early March, but you have yet to provide a specific date or the exact metrics that would be used to guide this decision.”
Most-to-all of the 31 BOCES districts behind last month’s letter have signed and sent versions of this new letter, created as a collaboration between them are. The Hartford one includes Cook’s name, as well as those of the district’s principals and members of the board of education. NEWS10 was also provided with the Warrensburg Central School District version of the letter, which includes that district’s own set of important names, but the same message.
“Explaining the merits of the mandate to our communities and the families we serve has become a significant and increasingly difficult challenge. Many are having a hard time rationalizing how a student can participate in travel athletic programs (i.e. basketball), go to the movies, attend birthday parties or other social gatherings all unmasked, but have to wear a mask and be socially distanced from their peers when coming to school in the morning. From our perspective, it is now time to forge ahead and to remove the mask mandate within our schools, and to adjust the quarantine procedures accordingly,” both letters read.
When mask mandates were lifted at other indoor businesses earlier this month, schools were an exception. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul announced that masking would be up for consideration over the President’s Day week break for public schools. Students are in the midst of that week, and the reality of what their lives away from school are like isn’t lost on Cook.
“Everywhere else in the state, it’s been lifted,” he said. “Kids are on February break right now, unmasked, and having them come back to school masked just doesn’t make sense.”
The new regulations specifically state that Commissioner Bassett retains the authority to resume or continue face mask requirements based on the severity of coronavirus prevalence in communities. Schools are listed as a “certain setting” where mask implementation may continue to differ from businesses and gathering spaces at large. Other settings listed include correctional facilities, public transit, nursing homes and health care facilities.
Cook said that the new letters, like the original one, come from the same place in districts’ minds. The 31 school districts – and countless others like them – want to know how, and when, they’ll be evaluated to find out whether or not their students can come in with faces fully visible once this week’s break is over.
“We haven’t been involved with any of the conversations with the governor or the department of health, but we remain hopeful that schools would be the next ones to get that relaxation. The governor said they were going to review the data; they didn’t say what data they were going to use,” Cook said.