For the past two years, New York schools have mandated all students to wear face masks during in-person learning to decrease the spread of COVID-19. However, as the Omicron wave dies down and nationwide vaccination rates have risen, legislators across the country have lifted COVID mandates. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently enacted a series of measures easing COVID restrictions, such as revoking vaccine and mask mandates for businesses. On February 27, 2022, Hochul announced the end of the state mandate requiring masks in public schools, effective March 2.
Throughout the pandemic, schools have fostered a safe environment for children to learn with an incredibly low risk of contracting COVID-19, and Hochul’s new ruling highlights these successes. Yet, after a long two years of masking, this decision has sparked a wide range of responses from school faculty and students alike.
All East End school superintendents who Dan’s Papers spoke to reported that masks are now optional in their district, though everyone acknowledged that there would still be students and staff who choose to remain masked. This decision — everyone agreed — would be respected.
Overall, the superintendents reported a positive response from parents, students and school staff regarding the end of the mask mandate, reflecting a common sentiment that “this is a positive moment in two years of misery,” as Adam Fine, superintendent of the East Hampton Union Free School District (UFSD), put it. He added, “There is a very exciting new energy in all of our buildings. The teachers are excited to see their students’ faces and smiles. Parents have been thrilled.” Fine also noted that he has observed students say that if their teacher wears a mask, they will wear one out of respect.
Jack Perna, superintendent of Montauk Public School, said the majority of teachers and parents in his school district love the decision to make masks optional. Perna added that most students are thrilled to see their friends’ faces again. When asked about the impact of eliminating mandatory masking, he replied, “How about real smiles?”
Dr. Augustine E. Tornatore, superintendent of the Riverhead Central School District, said that although masking is now optional, some Riverhead students still continue to mask, and that decision will be met with kindness. “We stress kindness in our district, and we want everyone to feel comfortable whether they wear a mask or not,” he said.
Dr. Anthony J. Mauro, superintendent of the Southold UFSD, characterized the Southold teachers’ as “very even-keeled” when responding to his decision to follow Hochul and end the mask mandate. “They are extremely professional and supportive of our students and their choices,” he explained, adding that the district will “respect everyone’s choice with masks, as we have students and teachers who choose to mask and those who do not wear a mask.” When asked if ending the mask mandate will impact students’ educational experiences, Mauro affirmed, “I believe the educational experience at Southold was positive and will continue to be positive, no matter the situation. We respect each other and work together to make it so.”
Debra Winter, superintendent of Springs School, reported that while most are happy to see the mandate lifted, it is troubling for some. She said, “It’s definitely confusing to students. Some are still very concerned that they could get sick, they could not see grandparents or be responsible for making small siblings sick. I just hope we don’t have to go back to wearing masks.”
Seth Turner, superintendent of the Amagansett UFSD, shared a similar sentiment as Winter, as he professed that while many teachers, parents and students are relieved to be able to remove masks in school, some are “understandably apprehensive.” He reinforced the notion that masking is not completely a relic of the past, as there are still situations which warrant the wearing of masks in school. This includes if a student has tested positive and is returning to school, or if a student or staff member has been exposed to a known positive case of COVID.
Brian Doelger, superintendent of Shelter Island UFSD, reported, “It was business as usual in our district. We will continue to follow the CDC and health department recommendations as we have throughout this pandemic.” Doelger also noted that those who decide to wear masks still sit and talk with students who choose to go unmasked. “Everyone is getting along,” he added.
The remaining East End school superintendents could not be reached for comment by press time.