COVID school rules make masks optional, but students and staff go their separate ways

Third-grade student Isabel Curry arrived at Church Street Elementary School in White Plains on Wednesday morning, holding her model of Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House and flashing her smile for the first time since she was in first year.

“I feel good!” she says. “I’m getting some fresh air. I feel like I’m free and I don’t have to wear a mask anymore.”

Wednesday marked the lifting of New York State’s mask mandate for schools, a milestone after two years of pandemic education. In several schools in the Hudson Valley, many students showed up without masks when it seemed that about as many continued to wear them.

Students arrive at Highview Elementary in Nanuet on March 2, 2022. It was the first day masks were not required at school.

Church Street fifth grader Kimberly Viveros was eager to explain why she would continue to wear a mask at school for the time being.

“I want to feel safe,” she said. “I just feel like it’s best for me to wear my mask…I’m trying to protect myself, my family, my grandfather and my grandmother because I don’t want them to get sick .”

Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday, the day before many New York students return after a week of recess, that she will lift the indoor mask mandate for schools on Wednesday. The announcement came after months of dispute in many communities over whether all students should be required to wear masks.

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Since Sunday night, many school districts have been emphasizing to their communities that all students and staff — whether unmasked or continuing to wear masks — must be treated with respect going forward. Many have asked families to tell their children about it.

At Highview Elementary in Nanuet, about half of third and fourth graders wore masks Wednesday morning. “I can still see your smile under there,” said an assistant helping a young masked child off a bus.

Mother Anne Mirasol said her family had decided to arrange for their children, including Claire, a fourth year student at Highview, to remain in masks for another week because the students had just returned from winter vacation. “We have always been cautious during the pandemic,” she said.

Claire was among many students in her class who still wore a mask, including her teacher, Helene Collins.

“I hope my students feel comfortable,” Collins said, whether or not they’re wearing a mask.

Students take a lesson in teacher Jill Stramiello's third grade classroom at Minisink Valley Middle School in Slate Hill, NY on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

Kristin Smith, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son in the Minisink School District, said her children feel “free” to go to school without masks.

“It’s been so long and they’ve gotten used to it,” she said. “But when they found out they didn’t have to wear one, they were very excited.”

Smith said her children understood that some of their classmates might still wear masks due to medical conditions or personal choice, but couldn’t help but be thrilled to see some peers’ faces.

“I think it’s so interesting, like (they) see people’s faces for the first time,” she said.

Overcome conflict

Smiles were a big theme Wednesday morning, including among older students.

Walking down the hallway at John Jay High School in East Fishkill, a student’s face lit up as she turned to her unmasked principal, David Kedzielawa.

“It’s nice to see your smile again, Mr. Kedzielawa,” she said before rushing down the hall.

When 1,500 students walked through the front doors, many wore masks while others saw each other for the first time in some time.

Students at John Jay High School in East Fishkill walk to class on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. This is the first day students have been allowed not to wear masks inside the building after two years of warrants due to COVID-19.

Wappingers superintendent Dwight Bonk said he hopes lifting the mask mandate will facilitate contentious debates at bi-weekly board meetings.

“I hope we can turn a page and focus more on the education and academic, social and emotional well-being of our students,” he said.

Divisions over whether students should be forced to wear masks have been a defining feature of this school year, across region, state and country.

In many Hudson Valley communities, parents began lining up at school board meetings last fall to demand the lifting of the mask mandate, with many opposing the government’s overreach or citing studies they said called into question the effectiveness of masks.

School boards and administrators repeatedly responded that they were following state guidelines, that many families wanted the mandate in place, and that their primary concern, above all else, was to keep students in school.

In recent months, many school officials, facing daily complaints about the mask mandate, have pushed Hochul to set parameters for the eventual lifting of the mandate.

Tensions have risen further in the past month when a state court ruled New York’s mask mandates were unconstitutional before an appeals judge quickly reinstated the mandates until the state’s appeal could be decided.

Students admire a classmate's project at the start of the school day at Church Street Elementary School in White Plains on March 2, 2022. New York State's indoor mask mandate for schools has been lifted on Wednesday, and staff and students had the option of not wearing masks for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Hochul resisted calls to drop the school mandate until mid-February, but sped things up after the US Centers for Control and Prevention announced Feb. 25 that indoor masks in schools could be optional in communities with low COVID rates. Two days later, Hochul said the mask mandate would be lifted Wednesday.

The Mid-Hudson region’s COVID positivity rate has fallen below 2% in recent days.

New York’s 62 counties can still enforce mask mandates if they choose to do so.

Vincent Galligan, who has three children, 13, 10 and 7, at Minisink Schools, said his children understood why the mask mandate was in place.

“In fact, being in the schools was definitely a highlight, so the fact that they could be in person and be with their friends was awesome even with all the restrictions,” he said.

Late Tuesday, the state health department released updated COVID rules for schools. They included a requirement that people who have had COVID remain masked in schools after returning from isolation for 6-10 days after being infected. The state also recommends that a person who has been exposed to a positive case remain masked for 10 days.

Respect all choices

With the lifting of the mandate, schools have been laser-focused on the importance of respecting all decisions regarding mask-wearing.

Rockland BOCES said in a notice schools would “maintain an environment free from bullyingbullying and/or harassment due to an individual’s choice to continue wearing a mask.”

Nyack Schools Superintendent Eudes Budhai posted a message – including video reminders in English with Haitian Creole subtitles and another in Spanish – asking “everyone to be kind, respectful and supportive of everyone’s decision to wear a mask or not”.

Carianna Thomas says a word to Carmella Sill's kindergarten class at Minisink Valley Middle School in Slate Hill, NY on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

Pleasantville Superintendent Tina DeSa reminded her community that the change could present challenges for some students.

“Some of our students have never gone to school without a mask,” DeSa wrote. “Removing masks may be strange and unsettling for some, and our faculty and staff will be attentive and supportive as students adjust to this change.”

On Wednesday morning, Nanuet Superintendent Kevin McCahill, who came to Highview Elementary to greet students, said there had been many discussions among staff about ways to ensure all students feel supported whatever decision they make. Some principals and teachers are still wearing masks, while others are not.

“We have plenty of mannequins for students who are comfortable enough to throw the mask off today, and for those who aren’t,” said McCahill, who went maskless.

At Church Street Elementary, principal Kimberly Crawford was thrilled to see the faces of many of her students for the first time, even as she remained in mask.

“Above all, the message is to be kind to each other,” she said.

Colleen Panetta, a school nurse in Church Street, said the time seemed right to make masks optional.

“I’m so glad the state is giving everyone the opportunity to be comfortable,” she said. “Rates are low, hospitalizations are low. We get it.”

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Contact him at [email protected] Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.

Martha K. Merrill