Mask Debate Heats Up: Back-to-School Masks Mandated Amid Delta Variant Rise

Riverhead Central School District students were all smiles on the first day of school, even behind their masks.
Students were all smiles on the first day of school, even behind their masks.
Courtesy Riverhead Central School District

Students, teachers and staffers at the nearly two dozen school districts across the East End will have to don masks this fall, following an Aug. 24 order from new Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Hochul issued the order within hours of taking office after her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, resigned amid an impeachment inquiry. The mandate comes as parents, students and school officials across the region have been debating whether or not masks are necessary for children in the classroom setting during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. School starts next month at Twin Forks districts.

“My number one priority is getting children back to school and protecting the environment so they can learn safely,” said Hochul, who directed the New York State Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering schools, launched a Back to School COVID-19 testing program to make testing widely available and requiring vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly. She is using $335 million in federal funds to launch the new COVID-19 Testing in Schools Program in partnership with local health departments and BOCES in New York State outside of New York City.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul reacts as she speaks to the media after taking part in a swearing-in ceremony to become New York State's 57th and first woman governor, in the Red Room at the New York State Capitol, in Albany, New York, U.S., August 24, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
New York Governor Kathy Hochul after swearing in as New York State’s 57th and first woman governor, August 24, 2021.REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Hochul also launched an additional back-to-school COVID-19 testing program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rite Aid and BioReference to make testing more widely available for statewide public school students before the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Testing appointments will be available to students in grades K-12 at the 115 Rite Aid drive-through locations. Students are required to pre-register online and schedule a time slot for testing. Students aged 17 and under must have parental or legal guardian consent and be accompanied by a guardian at time of testing in the drive-through. Digital results will be delivered to parents for students to bring to school.

COVID-19 testing is voluntary and will be provided at no cost to the student’s family nor to the school district. The state also has available more than 4.3 million child-sized clothed face masks, about 10 million adult-sized clothed face masks and almost 55 million non-surgical face masks to provide to students and teachers in schools across the state.

The news comes as the U.S. is experiencing a new surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the more infectious Delta variant and dipping vaccination rates. Efforts to increase vaccination rates and implement public safety measures like mask wearing in schools have faced staunch opposition in some circles with debates for and against breaking out at recent local school board meetings. Some districts, such as Sag Harbor schools, already require daily health screenings—temperature checks and questioning exposure—for students who receive in-person instruction.

“Unmask our kids!” said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the congressman who represents the East End and is the GOP gubernatorial challenger running against Hochul in the 2022 elections, issuing a common refrain among critics of mask mandates.

The debate comes as COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. reached a five-month high last week as the more contagious Delta variant runs rampant in areas with low vaccination rates. Cases continue to rise, and the United States, as of Aug. 20, was averaging about 139,000 new infections each day. The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 is rising across the country and reached 1,834 as of Aug. 18, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded alarms on Aug. 2 with a report that the Delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox and can be passed on by people who are vaccinated.

A medical worker displaying a COVID-19 vaccine on January 4, 2021.
A medical worker displaying a COVID-19 vaccine on January 4, 2021.Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Pool

Riverhead, Calverton and East Moriches are among the communities that the state is targeting to boost vaccination rates as Long Island’s positive COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising once more while the Delta variant of the virus spreads. The communities are among 117 ZIP codes statewide—21 of which are on Long Island—that have above-average new positive COVID-19 cases per capita and below-average vaccination rates. The three communities each have a vaccination rate of about 50%.

The 7-day average percentage of positive test results statewide was 3.14% and nearly 4% for Long Island as of Aug. 23, the latest date available as of press time. Suffolk County is up to 213,121 cases, with 312 new cases alone on Aug. 23. That includes 13,735 cases on the East End since the first wave of the pandemic arrived last year: 6,225 in the Town of Southampton, 3,820 n the Town of Riverhead, 1,863 in the Town of East Hampton, 1,751 in the Town of Southold, and 76 on Shelter Island.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta applauded Hochul’s universal masking and vaccination policies for schools.

“We support universal mask wearing as part of a layered mitigation strategy that also includes robust COVID testing, contact tracing, proper ventilation and other strategies recommended by public health experts,” Pallotta said. “We also support the governor’s move to require regular COVID testing for school staff who are not yet vaccinated. It’s critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level.”

State Commissioner of Education Dr. Betty A. Rosa agreed, saying: “The State Education Department supports a consistent application of masking requirements in schools, easing the return to school with a common line of defense against the spread of the COVID variant.”

-With Reuters

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