With Mask Mandate Lifted, Schools Seek to Balance Free Choice with Lingering COVID Concerns
By Barrett Seaman—
Governor Kathy Hochul’s weekend announcement that she was ending the statewide requirement to mask up in public spaces, including classrooms, has prompted school administrators to craft policies that respect individual rights on the one hand and protect public health on the other as students return on Wednesday.
At his weekly briefing on Monday, County Supervisor George Latimer said that individual districts could choose to extend the mandate, but districts in the rivertowns, as in the rest of the county, are opting to make masks optional.
Both Masters and Hackley, the area’s two private schools, announced that they too will go mask-optional as of this week.
Superintendents are still waiting for guidance on collateral issues, such as social distancing recommendations, testing protocols, contract tracing and the specific criteria that would trigger a reinstatement of the masking requirement. They are also contemplating how best to keep a lid on potential conflicts between proponents and opponents of masking—conflicts that mirror the deep national political and cultural divide.
The backdrop for the policy change is the continued decline in COVID infections. Latimer reported that active cases in the county had fallen from a high of more than 36,000 in early January to 1,066 as of Sunday. The countywide infection rate has averaged under two percent for the past ten days.
Those who have opposed masking mandates since well before the drop in infections argue that Hochul’s decision was based less on public health science than on political science. One Irvington resident posting on Facebook referred to polls “showing a bloodbath for Governor Kathy Hochul and her party.”
Former and potential Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino wrote that Hochul “finally caved when the political science changed. Her mask obsession for children” he wrote, “was shameful and harmful.”
In fact, Hochul’s standing in the most recent statewide poll, taken by Siena College in February, showed her with a commanding lead over potential opponents from either party. Her favorability score of 46%, though relatively low, compared with 25% for her most likely Democratic primary opponent, Jumaane Williams—and 18% for both Astorino and the state GOP’s choice for governor, Long Island’s Lee Zeldin.
Within that political context, district superintendents in Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow, Irvington and Dobbs Ferry are telling families that the decision to mask is theirs. “We’re really encouraging that it’s a personal and family decision,” says Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow Superintendent Chris Borsari. Adds Irvington Superintendent Dr. Kris Harrison: “I do expect that there will be families, students and staff members who will continue to wear masks—and some who could be uncomfortable with others not wearing masks.”
Dobbs Ferry Superintendent Dr. Lisa Brady says she has not had any pushback against the district’s stated mask-optional policy. “I am not anticipating any friction among groups, at least not here in Dobbs Ferry,” she wrote in response to a query. “We have asked teachers in all three buildings to speak with students yesterday and today about respecting personal choices and that all students, masked or unmasked, have a right to do what is best for themselves and their families.”
In an email to families on the eve of implementing the new standard, Irvington’s Kris Harrison reminded his community that many students, faculty and staff would be choosing to remain masked and that their decision would be welcomed. “At no time will the District permit anyone to be critiqued, penalized, or bullied should they choose to wear a mask or not,” he warned.
As if to underscore the fluidity of the situation, later that same day, Harrison wrote a second email announcing that three students, one from the Middle School and two from the High School had tested positive. In the two upper school cases, contact tracing was initiated and those deemed to have been exposed with notified and asked to quarantine.
As Tarrytown’s Chris Borsari acknowledged, this shift is just one in a long series of attempts to stamp out an elusive and potentially deadly disease. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes over past two years,” he said. “Any time we make a change, all of us are anxious.”
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