NY school mask mandate: Patience wearing thin

Mounting frustration over New York state's school mask mandate has reached a feverish level, especially now that many of the states in the Northeast are lifting their mandates.

"People are angry, people are very frustrated," said Jay Worona, the deputy executive director for the New York State School Boards Association.

Gov. Kathy Hochul met with school board members, superintendents and parent-teacher associations from across the state on Tuesday in order to hear firsthand some concerns. Key players who were in the meeting say that much of the frustration they are hearing from parents stems from a lack of clarity around the metrics being used to keep the mask mandate in place.

"Most of the education groups let her know very clearly that the folks are getting very restless and they need to be taken seriously because people's concerns are very strong," Worona said.

Hochul has said in the past that she would like to see vaccination rates increase among children before a mask mandate is lifted and told those in the meeting on Tuesday that although the COVID infection rate is declining, the pandemic remains unpredictable, pointing to the omicron variant.

Schools, which have faced the brunt of a lot of this frustration from parents, are concerned though if vaccination rates become a primary factor in the mask debate.

"We did say that we anticipate that there would be a great controversy in some communities if vaccination rates were made a primary factor in decisions about whether mask requirements could be modified," said Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

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Another aspect discussed during the meeting is how schools will eventually transition from masks to no masks, how school staff can support students who still choose to wear a mask and how districts might operate independently of one another when it comes to different regulations.

"For many of our school buildings, they are still doing contact tracing, some of them they're not doing the contact tracing," New York State PTA Executive Director Kyle Belokopitsky said. "So I think we're trying to find reasonable solutions to move from a pandemic to an epidemic because I think COVID will be here forever."

In a statement, the state Health Department said the regulation that allows it to impose the mask mandate in schools expires on Feb. 21 and while the department does expect to renew the regulation, this does not mean the mandate will also be extended. This will merely give officials flexibility.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett told lawmakers during a budget hearing on Tuesday that no decision had been made yet on whether the state will continue the mandate.

Hochul hinted with school leaders, though, that the mandate will be reexamined after students go on their February break. But patience is wearing thin.

"We are also detecting increased frustration among families who have gone along with the requirements — and that's new," Lowry said. "There are concerns about the long-term implications of this — damaging trust between the schools and the communities they serve."

Hochul is expected to make an announcement on the indoor mask mandate for businesses on Wednesday. That mandate is set to expire on Thursday, so there is a chance she will allow that to lapse.

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