Local schools keep masking in place while appeal plays out

·5 min read

Jan. 26—PLATTSBURGH — Citing state Education Department guidance and legal advice, local school districts continued to enforce masking Tuesday even after a Nassau County Supreme Court judge struck down the state's mask mandate for indoor public spaces the day prior.

Later in the day, an appellate court judge granted state Attorney General Letitia James Office's motion to keep the requirement in place as the state pursues an appeal.

JUDGE: UP TO LEGISLATURE

State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker had ruled Monday that the mandate could not be enforced as the state Department of Health did not have the legal authority to put it in place, the Associated Press reported.

Instituting such a requirement would be up to the legislature, not an executive branch agency, he wrote in his decision.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, immediately voiced objection to the ruling and her administration's intention to reverse it. Noting the DOH's plan to appeal, which would result in an automatic stay on the ruling, NYSED said Monday evening that schools were to continue to follow the mask rule.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) praised Rademaker's decision, and throughout the day Tuesday decried Hochul and her administration for continuing to uphold masking in schools on social media, instructing parents who ran into issues to contact her office.

Attorney Bill Owens, a partner at the Plattsburgh firm Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley PLLC and Stefanik's immediate predecessor, noted that the decision did not preclude any school district or other entity from imposing their own masking requirements.

An appeals court judge ultimately granted a stay until further action is taken, and a Friday hearing is scheduled.

NYSED Commissioner Betty Rosa said in a statement that she was pleased with the decision, reaffirming the mandate remains in effect for schools statewide.

AUTOMATIC STAY, DISTRICT JURISDICTION

Northern Adirondack Central School District Superintendent of Schools James Knight pointed to how, under state Civil Practice Law and Rules, Rademaker's decision was automatically stayed upon service of the notice of appeal. That occurs when the appellant is the state, a state officer or a state agency.

"Even though the appellate court was reviewing the appeal at 2 p.m. (Tuesday) afternoon, the stay was already in place since its delivery (Tuesday) morning," he explained.

Champlain Valley Educational Services BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Mark Davey said that was in alignment with NYSED's direction, and further noted that additional legal advice indicated that CVES BOCES and the region fall under the Third Judicial District, where an Albany County Supreme Court ruling previously upheld mask-wearing.

"Nassau County falls under the Second Judicial District," Davey continued. "The legal interpretation of the split decision also means that our schools follow our Judicial District determination for our district."

CONFUSION ACKNOWLEDGED

Plattsburgh City School District Superintendent of Schools Jay Lebrun acknowledged the confusion Rademaker's ruling created regarding mask-wearing in schools, but said NYSED had made it clear the rule was to remain in place.

"In keeping, our expectation remains that masking will continue in the school setting and at school-sponsored indoor events. District personnel continue to enforce this longstanding practice."

His AuSable Valley Central School District counterpart, Paul Savage, said district administration had received some emails and calls asking about the Supreme Court ruling.

"People are frustrated in some cases and we understand that it is a very confusing situation," he said. "We are doing our very best to respectfully share what we know, reminding them based on the NYSED and DOH language ... that masking is still required for now and asking for additional patience as we get more details and direction."

Beekmantown Central School District Superintendent of Schools Dan Mannix emphasized that the mask mandate was not a district-imposed rule or regulation, "rather one we must follow as directed by the DOH, NYSED and we believe is found in CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance."

"Any request for relief should be made to those governmental agencies," he added.

MASKING THE CENTERPIECE

Lebrun noted how public health authorities have consistently pointed to strong COVID protocols in schools as the reason for nominal spread in those settings, and how the centerpiece of those protocols is universal masking.

"To that end, masking appears to be a central factor in our enviable track record of open schools and in-person instruction," he continued.

Should the masking directive be reversed or rescinded, district personnel would reassess the practice and make a decision based on the virus' circumstances at that time, Lebrun said, adding that process would likely involve re-empaneling the district's School Reopening Advisory Committee and seeking input from local health authorities.

Mannix similarly said his district would have a Reopening Committee meeting. That body is composed of union and school board members, teachers, administration, parents, medical professionals, supervisors and others, he added.

UNION: OFF-RAMP NEEDED

On his district's current position on mask-wearing and its use as a tool in stemming the spread of COVID-19, Savage said that was a medical discussion that he did not feel comfortable or confident giving an opinion on.

He said AVCSD had not yet determined whether it would keep mask-wearing in place for the rest of the school year if it was no longer a state requirement.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said in a statement that public health experts had made clear that masks were an important part of keeping students, educators and communities safe, and that the current guidance on masking up was the right thing to do.

"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."

Email Cara Chapman:

cchapman@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @PPR_carachapman