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Masks for All in School After Suffolk Steps Up With Guidance

Thu, 08/12/2021 - 09:31
Students across Suffolk County will again start the year wearing masks.

With the New York State Health Department announcing last week that it would not provide Covid-19 guidelines for schools to reopen with in the fall, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services stepped up on Monday to fill the void by offering its own.

The county's guidelines closely mirror those of the federal Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics. They include universal mask wearing indoors for all, even those students and staff members who have already received vaccines; masks will not be required outdoors.

Social distancing, now called "physical distancing," has been shifted from six feet to "at least three feet," and contact tracing will still be required, though the definition of who must quarantine after possible exposure to the virus has changed. Now, instead of pulling whole classrooms of students and teachers out of school, only those in close proximity for more than 10 minutes or those who weren't wearing masks must quarantine. There are also updated testing protocols in place.

The county "concurs with C.D.C. guidance, which recommends that fully vaccinated persons who have come into close contact with someone with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should be tested three to five days after exposure."

The county is not mandating vaccinations for all who are eligible, but has requested estimates of the number of students and staff who have received shots. "Vaccination requirements for staff may be decided by the individual school districts," the Health Department wrote.

Busing can return to full capacity as long as children wear masks and the windows are open. Also recommended is establishing seating charts and tracking cohorts of students for "any activities not in the classroom -- recess, lunch, support services, etc."

Adam Fine, superintendent of the East Hampton School District, said that it "just reaffirms what we are using to guide our decisions." He indicated he was frustrated with the State Health Department, but said the district is "pressing forward" with fully in-person learning in September.

All local districts are weighing back-up plans to educate students who do have to quarantine or who are otherwise out of school for extended periods of time.

"The East End superintendents are currently working together to answer some of the difficult questions," Mr. Fine said by email this week.

Just a few hours before the county published its guidance on Monday, Dr. Gail Schonfeld of East End Pediatrics joined the Springs School Board to urge the district to require masks and to start thinking about other viral illnesses like common colds and respiratory infections not related to Covid.

"As a general philosophy, for whatever decrease in transmissions that [masking] causes, it is a good thing," Dr. Schonfeld said. "My concern is that up until now, people have had a choice of in-person versus remote, and what are you going to do with the people who refuse [to wear a mask]?"

In the Springs School Board's discussion of that issue, Tim Frazier, its vice president, said that "if it's mandated that you have to wear a mask in school, then students have to do that or else they just can't come to school. . . . The parent has to make that decision."

Dr. Schonfeld also said the local pediatric health care system is "imploding."

"Getting kids in to test and give them doctor's notes -- we're not able to meet the demand. We just can't do it," she said.
In the Montauk School District, where every classroom now has an air purifier, Diane Hausman, the school board president, said Tuesday that the county's guidance "is a very thorough document. It was spot-on."

In the Amagansett School District, Seth Turner, the superintendent, said he was shocked to hear the State Health Department abstain from updating Covid regulations.

"We have made certain to order adequate supplies of necessary materials, and we are making sure that C.D.C. guidelines are being followed. . . . Basically, the protocols which were in place for Amagansett School throughout the spring look as though they will be necessary in September," Mr. Turner said by email.

The highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 is fueling a surge in new cases, primarily among the unvaccinated, including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccines. In recent weeks, cases have been reported at camps across the South Fork, prompting a spate of quarantines.

Rebecca Morgan Taylor, executive director of Project Most, which runs after-school programs during the school year in addition to a summer camp, confirmed this week that 40 campers are in quarantine after one child tested positive for the virus. 

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