Face coverings in most South Fork schools are now optional. School districts from Montauk to Southampton confirmed that as of Wednesday masks will no longer be mandatory for students, teachers, administrators, or staff. The mask rollback extends to school buses as well.
Although the Amagansett and Sagaponack Schools have yet not confirmed their decision, they are expected to adopt a similar stance.
The move followed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement on Sunday that New York State’s mask mandate in schools would expire on March 2. However, she granted local officials in individual districts and counties the power to require face coverings and other restrictive measures based on their needs.
Concurrently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that counties with low to medium risk of the coronavirus no longer insist on face coverings in schools and public places.
Suffolk County is currently deemed a low-risk area. The county’s seven-day average stood at 1.8 percent on Monday.
During Tuesday’s school board meeting in East Hampton, J.P. Foster, the school board president, said, “We’ve listened to the state, listened to our medical professionals, listened to our chief medical officer, and our own district nurses who deal with it every day. Also, our superintendent and our principals — they’re all involved in this daily. And I think our numbers are where we want them to be and they can’t get better than where they are for the moment. Let’s hope it stays that way. But I support no masks if we can have no masks.”
While other board members wholeheartedly agreed, they also encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated and remain vigilant for the potential of further exposure to the virus. Several members also stressed that should masks be mandated once again, the community be respectful of that decision.
Sandra Vorpahl, a board member, hoped that by making masks optional, anyone who chose to continue to wear one would “not be belittled or harassed in any way. They should feel comfortable wearing it, if that’s what they want to do,” she said.
In Springs, Debra Winter, the district’s superintendent, also confirmed that students and staff will now have the option of wearing a mask, in school and on school buses.
“It has been a long road but I am so proud of our students’ resilience through this difficult time. Springs School managed to build a new addition during a global pandemic. I’m so proud of our new administrative team, and our teachers and staff who stepped up every day to ensure the health and safety of our students, and their families,” Ms. Winter wrote in an email to The Star.
Following Tuesday’s school board meeting in Montauk, Jack Perna, the district’s superintendent, also confirmed that masks would be optional in his school for all students and staff. “Anyone who wants to continue to wear a mask is welcome to do so (if your child continues to wear a mask and is teased in any way, please let me know immediately and I will put an end to it),” he wrote in an email. “Masks will be optional on the school buses as well. It is more important now to keep your child home if he or she is not feeling well. Remember the Covid symptoms: runny nose, fever, cough, stomach issues, headache. Thank you for all of your patience and help these past two years! It’s been a long road . . . we made it! (Knocking on wood.)”
Similar sentiments were expressed during the Sag Harbor School Board meeting, although Jeff Nichols, the superintendent of that district, pointed out that lifting the mask mandate bears consequence on the reopening guidance, specifically regarding factors such as physical distancing, the definition of close contact, and quarantine measures for someone who tests positive for Covid-19. He said those guidelines are still unclear.
“Unfortunately, the New York State Department of Health and the Suffolk County Department of Health have not issued that guidance,” Mr. Nichols said Tuesday, a fact echoed by the East Hampton superintendent, Adam Fine. “We were told it was likely that it would be forthcoming either yesterday or today. We anticipate that it will be with us in the next day or two,” said Mr. Nichols.
Interestingly, while many parents had been extremely vocal in a campaign to end the mask-wearing mandate in schools, citing the negative social, emotional, and academic fallout on their mask-wearing children, several who were contacted to comment on this latest development opted to say simply that they were happy and now needed to move on.
“Just too much mental stress on my home,” one parent said, asking for anonymity.
However, Lua Li, a high school junior in East Hampton, was willing to share her thoughts that seemed to sum up the uncertainly of a generation of young people who have spent two formative years in uncharted territory.
“My thoughts on the lift of the mask mandate are mixed. A part of me is happy to be moving on and taking a big step forward from such scary times,” she said. “However, the thought of a potential outbreak or sitting next to people who just got back from traveling to faraway places — and even people having to see my face for the first time — is slightly unsettling. Some of my years as a high schooler have been swept away due to Covid, and unfortunately mask-wearing has become the new normal. I am comfortable wearing a mask and at certain times I would prefer to wear a mask rather than not. While I’m happy to be moving forward, there’s slight anxiety of judgment from other high schoolers and a potential outbreak moving us backward again. All in all, I’m grateful we are moving forward and excited for new times.”