Not yet: Gov. Kathy Hochul not ready to lift mask mandate for schools, she tells officials

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Gov. Kathy Hochul told education leaders Tuesday that she's not ready to lift the indoor mask mandate for schools, but hoped that a change could come after February break, according to observers of the meeting.

"She said that right now the state’s intent is to wait and see how circumstances change through the school break," said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Hochul had a virtual meeting with leaders of statewide education groups, including those representing superintendents, school boards, principals and PTAs. Each group had one spokesperson who shared their views and questions with Hochul, while other officials were allowed to observe the discussion.

Parents and supporters protest the mask mandate for students as they march around the Rockland County Office Building Jan. 31, 2022 in New City.
Parents and supporters protest the mask mandate for students as they march around the Rockland County Office Building Jan. 31, 2022 in New City.

The meeting was almost entirely about masks, an issue that has tied many New York school communities in knots. A state court decision on Jan. 24 threw out the state's mask mandates, but a judge ruled the next day that the mandates would stay in place until a state appeal is concluded.

With growing numbers of parents calling for masks to be optional inside schools, education groups have called on Hochul and the state Health Department to at least indicate what it will take to lift the mandate.

But Hochul has not responded to calls for such metrics.

COVID cases fall: Will Hochul drop mask mandate for businesses?

More: Gov. Hochul lifts mask mandate for NY businesses, but schools have to wait. Here's why

"A message was delivered that there is a lot of unrest in the communities, that there needs to be some kind of forecast because people are getting beyond restless," said Jay Worona, deputy executive director for the New York State School Boards Association.

He said Hochul was receptive to all she heard, but did not change her position.

"She indicated that her preference would be to do what the other states have done and end the mask mandate," Worona said. "But she doesn't want to do that if it imperils safety."

Hochul said in a briefing Wednesday that she plans to reassess the mask mandate in schools in early March, after a push to test students returning to classrooms from February break. The statewide mask mandate in indoor businesses and venues will be lifted on Thursday.

Connecticut and New Jersey announced Monday they would end their mask mandates in schools, the former on Feb. 28 and the latter on March 7.

Lowry said that participants in the meeting called on Hochul to set a plan for eventually lifting the mask mandate, instead of springing it on schools with little notice.

"You need some time for a transition," he said. "You don't want to send out a message at 4 o'clock on Friday."

Harry Leonardatos, a high school principal in Rockland County and president of the School Administrators Association of New York State, said he told Hochul that whatever policy follows the mandate should be based on metrics and clearly articulated, with time for school districts and counties to plan implementation.

"We have to tell our parents, tell our teachers, prepare everyone," he said. "We just can't open the doors."

In recent months, several changes to COVID-related policies have been delayed and then suddenly dropped on schools, forcing them to repeatedly update messages to their communities.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)

Hochul's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Hochul did not mention the mask mandate. "Keeping schools open has always been my top priority, and I want to thank the teachers, administrators, and parents who joined me today to hear directly from them," she said. "I want to also remind parents and guardians to please get their children vaccinated, and boosted if eligible."

Rallies against the mask mandate have been popping up in more communities since the recent court decisions. Plans for rallies across New York this Friday are being shared on social media.

With more parents sending their kids to school unmasked, schools have been responding in different ways. According to school district officials, parents and others, some schools distance unmasked students from others, some send unmasked students home, and some look the other way.

Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, said that Hochul fully understood the anxiety in many communities over the mandate.

"The rates continue to go down, which is positive," she said. "Hopefully we'll see the smiles back on the kids' faces in schools. That is the goal."

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Gov. Kathy Hochul tells school officials that mask mandate stays for now