Local school officials are closely watching the courts after New York State’s mask mandate was temporarily struck down by a Nassau County Supreme Court Justice last week, but was then temporarily upheld by an Appellate Division Justice the following day.
On Tuesday, January 25, Appellate Division Justice Robert Miller granted the state’s request to maintain the mask mandate while Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration appealed Long Island Judge Thomas Rademaker’s ruling. Rademaker found that the state overstepped its authority in mid-December by issuing a masking rule to attempt to combat an Omicron variant-led wave of COVID-19 infections in schools, health care facilities, homeless shelters, public transportation, and in any indoor space where proof of vaccination wasn’t required for entry.
Attorney General Letitia James released a statement applauding Miller’s decision and said her office would continue seeking to maintain the mandate in court.
“Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that wearing a mask saves lives,” James said. “This mandate and today’s decision are critical in helping to stop the spread of this virus and protect individuals young and old.”
In some parts of the state, like New York City, masking rules predated the December mandate. But in other districts, like those across the Hudson Valley, Rademaker’s ruling did not specify whether districts could continue requiring masks on campus by adopting their own protocols.
Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino said he doesn’t expect the legal battle over the state mandate to be resolved overnight.
“My guess is that this is going to drag out for a couple of weeks, but we’re anxious to see where it goes,” he said. “It’s polarizing, and either way the decision goes puts us in a defensive mode. If it’s upheld and we’re not allowed to have a mask mandate, we’re going to have parents who are concerned that their kids are in classes with students who don’t have masks on, and faculty and staff will have the same concerns. And if the mask mandate remains, I’m going to have parents who are angry because they don’t think kids should have to wear masks anymore. It’s a lose-lose for us.”
The Onteora school district is following state Education Department guidance in continuing to require masks in schools while Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mandate is appealed. “While these legal steps occur, it is the state Education Department’s position that all schools should continue to follow the mask mandate rule,” the district said in a statement released January 25. “More information will be communicated to all stakeholders as it becomes available.”
Still the right thing to do
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta issued a statement on Tuesday, January 25 in support of mask wearing in schools. He added that clarity in the message, including when masks should no longer be required, would also be helpful.
“Public health experts have been clear that masks are an important part of the strategies designed to keep students, educators and our communities safe,” said Pallotta. “Their current guidance is that masking up is the right thing to do, particularly given the still-elevated infection rates. In the meantime, we’re looking to state health officials to set a clear off-ramp for when mask requirements in schools can be relaxed so students, families and educators have some certainty that there is light at the end of this long tunnel.”
Saugerties Central School District Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt agreed that consistent and clear messaging is crucial. “As long as things are put out in the way that we have time to prepare and plan, then I’m fine,” Reinhardt said. “It’s when it comes sporadically or when it’s not consistent, it makes it challenging. We never want our staff or our students or our families to feel like they have misinformation.”
Like Pallotta, Padalino said he believed wearing masks was an important part of the picture when it came to keeping infection rates down in schools.
“Masks are the cornerstone of the whole strategy,” Padalino said. “In our schools we strive for social distancing, but in our middle schools and high schools we have students who are closely passing each other in the halls, or are close together at their lockers, and masks are really the linchpin. I still think that is the key to our mitigation strategies, and without that we probably would see more student-to-student and student-to-teacher transmission.”
Reinhardt said that should the mask mandate fall, diminishing infection rates, increasing vaccinations, and the impending arrival of spring along with other protocols would help overcome some concern.
“I would feel better now than I would have previously,” Reinhardt said. “If it does change, we’ll make sure we’re prepared and continue to provide the safest environment. My thing is the numbers are going in the right direction. In a matter of weeks, more kids will be congregating outside, less inside. It’s not going to be long before I think we’re in a much better place.”
Schools may go it alone
Padalino was uncertain whether the KCSD would seek to enact its own masking rules should the state mandate not survive an appeal.
“That is a matter that’s being researched probably by every school district attorney in the State of New York,” he said. “I think that some schools may try that tactic, and probably end up in legal battles on it. I would assume we would have that authority. Local school boards have authority over schools in their jurisdiction. And I’m sure that’s a court case that will be tested more than once if the mask mandate is lifted.”
At the very least, Padalino said he believed the district would encourage mask wearing on campus, even if it didn’t enforce it. “I think there’s reasonable evidence to say that this is what works, and we would continue to encourage the use of masks even the mask mandate was lifted,” Padalino said.
Reinhardt said school officials would seek to consider what was best for the district should the mask mandate fall.
“I would encourage people to feel comfortable with what they feel most comfortable with,” Reinhardt said. “I do appreciate people’s opinions and ability to have options on, but I’m in charge of making sure everybody is safe. And besides four days, we’ve been in school every day this year. I wouldn’t want to take anything off the trend where we’re going, which is a really good direction. So if it came to that point, I would meet with the school board and meet with our medical director about what recommendations we might put out.”
Nick Henderson contributed to this story