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Masks Mandatory in Schools, Vaccines Maybe, New Governor Says

Wed, 08/25/2021 - 16:20
On her first day in office, New York State's new governor, Kathy Hochul, pledged to take steps to keep kids and adults safe in schools.
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

On her first day in office on Tuesday, New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul directed the state Health Department to institute a universal mask requirement for all children and adults in schools and an expanded testing protocol for all, and said she is also looking into the possibility of mandating vaccines for all school employees with an option to test out weekly.

"My number one priority is getting children back to school and protecting the environment so they can learn safely," Governor Hochul said in her announcement.

Public school districts here are watching closely and waiting for the rules to come in writing.

"At this point, I think it's a smart idea and we will certainly follow it" when the mandate is formalized, said Jack Perna, superintendent and principal of the Montauk School.

Adam Fine, East Hampton's district superintendent, said he was pleased to hear there will be a mask requirement in schools -- something East Hampton was already going to do. Vaccinations, however, were an open question.

"Our board was very clear that they would like to see everyone vaccinated," Mr. Fine continued. "It will be interesting to see the direction this takes as far as mandating vaccines for all adults in a school environment."

The Ross School, which has an upper school campus in East Hampton and a lower school campus in Bridgehampton, was already one step ahead of the governor.

"We are requiring vaccinations of all of our faculty and staff unless they have a medical exemption that has to be approved by the school physician," said Andi O'Hearn, director of advancement and operations at Ross, which has about 170 employees.

"We will use a layered approach, so we'll start with the vaccinations," Ms. O'Hearn said. "We expect everyone eligible to be vaccinated. Then, ventilation. We will be using the same protocols we used last year. Physical distancing of three feet. Everyone will wear masks inside -- everyone -- and we will be doing weekly testing. We did it on campus last year and will do it on campus again this year."

Ross will not offer remote learning options this year for its 407 students unless there is a reason to close the campuses. Just over 100 of them are international boarding students, who will have Covid tests three days before they travel, a quarantine period when they arrive here, and another Covid test three or four days after that. School starts Sept. 15.

Last year, Ross did not have any cases of Covid transmission on campus. A few people got sick, Ms. O'Hearn said, but they did not catch it at school.

"It took sacrifices on everyone's part last year, including our families, but we had a lot of support from our families," she said. "They had to make hard choices, and they did, and it worked. I know people are tired right now and the Delta variant is a lot more contagious, but we will continue to do everything we can to keep the community safe."

The Springs School District unveiled its reopening plan at a Monday night school board meeting. The key components are mandatory masks for everyone when indoors and on school buses, windows open and air filters in classrooms, physical distancing of at least three feet, and assigned seating to help with contact tracing. Unvaccinated adults will have to stay at least six feet away from everyone else. Temperature checks will no longer be performed and remote learning options will not be offered. Lockers will be in use once again. Debra Winter, the district superintendent, said it's all possible because the major renovation and expansion project is nearing completion.

"We can spread out. . . . The space is so beautiful," she said, saying the district is in "a totally different place this year" than last.

Susan Menu, a Springs resident who has four grandchildren attending the school, encouraged the district to require vaccination for all adults working there. She cited the New York City school system's new requirement, announced this week by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and said circumstances are "way past the point where handwashing and masks are sufficient . . . to keep our children safe."

"I can appreciate people who say that they want the freedom to not have someone else tell them to get a vaccination. . . . My point is that their freedom ends where my safety and my children's safety begin," Ms. Menu told the Springs administrators and school board. "There is absolutely all of the data, the medicine, the doctors, saying this vaccine is safe. In a school situation, it is incumbent upon you -- that's why you're all here -- to make this wonderful school safe."

Barbara Dayton, the school board president, thanked Ms. Menu for her comment. "I think we anticipate the governor might be coming out with something this week, and we are waiting to hear what that might be," she said.

The federal Food and Drug Administration this week formally approved the Pfizer vaccine, which previously was approved only for emergency use. So far, though, only people ages 12 and up can get that vaccine, and others by Johnson and Johnson and Moderna are not yet available to those under 18.

In an email on Tuesday, Ms. Winter said that she understands Ms. Menu's concerns. "I'm hoping our governor provides schools with clear mandates. . . . In Springs, it is a small number of staff members who are unvaccinated," she said. "Maybe now that the vaccine is F.D.A.-approved, those unsure will get vaccinated."

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