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Tempers Flare Over Masking in Schools

Thu, 02/10/2022 - 10:52

Sag parents press school board to let them decide

Sag Harbor School board members and administrators addressed parents' emotional responses to the school mask mandate on Monday.

Charging that New York State’s indoor mask-wearing mandate has had negative social, emotional, and academic fallout on their children, some 20 Sag Harbor School parents demanded on Monday that administrators and school board members adopt a “mask choice” policy that would allow parents to decide what’s best for their children.

Despite the pushback during the nearly four-hour virtual meeting, administrators and most school board members held fast to the mandate, which was established to mitigate Covid-19 transmission. A general mandate was to expire on Jan. 15 but was extended to Feb. 21. Since then, the spread of the virus has slowed, with most local schools reporting only a small handful of new cases each week.

Yesterday, Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the mandatory mask-or-vaccinate requirement that she imposed two months ago on businesses, while keeping the school mask rule in place for now. She said it will be re-evaluated after the February school break, when many people will be traveling and gathering again. Families will be encouraged to test their kids and report the results. She will consider test positivity, vaccination, and hospitalization rates and other measurements of the spread of Covid-19 before making the call. There will be “very clear guidance so schools will know what to do,” the governor said.

In addition to discussing mask choice at the Sag Harbor School Board meeting, many speakers asked the board to convene an emergency session when the state mandate does expire, so that a mask-choice policy could be further discussed and possibly adopted. Feb. 21 is a national holiday, Presidents Day, and school is out during the week that follows, but several board members agreed that such a meeting was possible.

“If this law is changed tomorrow, I am available at any time, day or night, to have that meeting,” Sandi Kruel, the school board vice president, said. “To do it before then . . . is a little bit reckless.”

Moms and dads piled on to criticize the mask mandate.

“We did not elect you as co-parents,” Christine Mazzeo, a parent of three, told the board. “We’ve got that covered, thank you. I think it is out of line when it comes to mandating a so-called medical device for our children. You wouldn’t dare tell a parent of a diabetic child what glucose monitor they need to wear. Please don’t take that liberty of telling my child what they need to wear to keep themselves safe from this virus. I am more than capable of making that decision for them.”

Sarah Birdsall, who has two children, attributed a persistent rash around her daughter’s mouth to masks, which are “dirty, wet, disgusting,” she said, when the kids arrive home from school. “That cannot be healthy for them,” she said.

“They deserve to share their smiles and their voices with everyone,” said Erika Halweil.

Heather Hartstein, who has five children, urged the board to “serve the entire community and not just one narrative,” and to “support mask choice and medical freedom.” She recalled that early on in the pandemic, Sag Harbor was one of the first districts to switch to virtual learning. “We were unbelievable leaders at the start, and now we are sheep.”

Several speakers objected to being unable, even after all this time, to visit their children’s classrooms to read books, do crafts, or celebrate milestones, and lamented the loss of in-person parent-teacher conferences. Others pointed out that after school and on weekends, children often go to activities and play dates without masks.

Government officials in Connecticut and New Jersey announced this week that they will end indoor mask mandates on Feb. 28 and March 7, respectively. On Jan. 24, a Nassau County-based State Supreme Court justice ruled that the mask mandate was unconstitutional because the State Legislature had not technically approved it. That decision was reversed within a day, a higher court granting a stay of the ruling while an appeal could be heard, but some speakers posited that Sag Harbor inappropriately enforced the mask mandate on Jan. 25. On Jan. 31, the stay was extended to March 2.

Jeff Nichols, the district superintendent, reminded the audience that the mask rule was what allowed schools to reduce six-foot social distancing to three feet — the key factor that let classes resume this year fully in-person. “Absent that mask mandate, we would have had to have stayed at six feet, which would have prohibited us from getting all the kids in school. It’s likely that [state health officials] are communicating about this and will not likely make a decision where one is lifted without consideration of the others.”

Mr. Nichols also reminded everyone that “it was only five weeks ago that we were in the throes of Omicron.”

“I can’t rule out, as none of us can, that there won’t be another variant,” he said, “but certainly, the trajectory of the last five to six weeks is very encouraging.”

The often contentious meeting saw Yorgos Tsibiridis, a board member, propose a resolution to adopt a mask-choice policy “contingent that the state changes the mandate.” It was voted down by a tally of six no votes to Mr. Tsibiridis’s lone yes.

“My motion was not going into the unknown. There’s going to be guidelines,” Mr. Tsibiridis said in its defense.

Jordana Sobey, another board member, said it was “not just a binary question of masks or no masks.” Citing Governor Hochul’s recent statement that lifting the mandate might be tied to the need to boost vaccine rates, she implored parents to vaccinate their children. “That is how we’re going to get through this,” she said. Her comments did not go over well with some of the parents on the meeting.

No one in the audience spoke up in favor of masks. Several parents referenced a petition signed by more than 450 people calling for choice, though it was unclear how many of the signers were Sag Harbor residents. Anyone can sign petitions on that website.

Other speakers questioned why, if masks are so critical, were the performers in last weekend’s middle school play allowed to be maskless? Mr. Nichols said that decision was made after consulting the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. Chris Tice, a board member, urged administrators to take a look at what she suggested is the perceived “inequity” between policies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

The mask-choice issue has trickled down to other school districts here. Jack Perna, the Montauk School superintendent, said he’d heard there was a similar petition circulating in his district, though he hasn’t seen it yet. “But until the state mandate is lifted, I don’t think there is much that we can do about it,” he said by email on Tuesday.

Adam Fine, the East Hampton School District superintendent, said in an email that he has communicated with parents “on both sides of the debate” over the past few weeks. “East Hampton is currently complying with the current mandate from Governor Hochul,” he wrote. “. . . Our board of education has been very clear that they are following the advice of medical professionals, as they have throughout the pandemic. If things change, I am sure they will discuss it publicly and seek out guidance from medical professionals, and listen to the points made by our stakeholders.”

To date, Sagaponack and Wainscott School officials have not received any complaints about the mask mandate and compliance. “In fact, the mandate and related protocols have been very effective in protecting our students and staff,” David Eagan, president of the Wainscott School Board, said Tuesday.

Debra Winter, the Springs superintendent, cited a law that could allow the state’s education commissioner to withhold state funding and even remove local school board members from office if there are lapses in enforcing laws and mandates. Ms. Winter expected to hear from Springs parents at her district’s board meeting this week.

“My concern is about the divide in our communities — the hostility and disregard for the board of education, teachers, and administrators who were charged with following the mandates and the responsibility to open school in-person safely,” she said. “This was a huge undertaking, and one that our board of education, administrators, and teachers did not take lightly. . . . These are difficult times, not only in education, but in society.”


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