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As some parents object, health officials face questions over continuing NY schools mask mandate

A line of masked schoolchildren walk through a school hallway.
New York NOW

A New York state health department board on Thursday formalized what Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a day earlier: Schoolchildren will continue to be required to wear masks to help protect them against COVID-19 until at least early March.

Nearly two dozen people testified about the extension during the Public Health and Health Planning Council's meeting. The normally obscure policymaking board also heard testimony about vaccinations and quarantine protocols.

Allie Halpin, a mother from Suffolk County, said the masks amount to “child abuse” and are harming children's mental health and affecting their learning of communication skills.

“These kids are miserable in masks. They cannot breathe, their development is being hindered,” Halpin said. “If you vote yes and extend the emergency order and keep our kids in masks, you can go to bed at night considering yourselves child abusers.”

While it does not oppose continuation of the mandate, the New York State Council of School Superintendents also expressed concerns.

Greg Berck, the group’s assistant director and assistant counsel, asked for more clarity about when the mask mandate will end and if it will be reinstated in the future. The school superintendents want more information on the science and data behind the decisions, saying many school communities lack a clear understanding of them.

“Communities are strained, their threads are being pulled,” said Berck, who added school leaders are struggling to “keep schools functioning.”

Berck also asked that school boards no longer be required to vote on mask mandates to avoid further controversy.

Some members of the public health council board also asked for more details from health officials on the metrics used to make the decisions on the mandates.

“Are those (metrics) transparent and publicly understood?” asked Ann Monroe, the consumer advocate representative on the board. “I would have to say from everything we’ve heard, from the letters and the people who have spoken, that that process is not well understood.”

Harvey Lawrence, president and chief executive officer of BMS Family Health and Wellness Centers, asked the health department to “take a more proactive approach” on getting the word out to the public on their rationale for the regulations.

“That type of information campaign is critically important,” Lawrence said. “Because absent that, it creates a void.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, who spoke later at the full board meeting, said a number of data points go into decisions about pandemic-related restrictions and regulations. They include the number of new cases, the number of people hospitalized with the disease, including pediatric hospitalizations, and the percentage of beds that are occupied.

Bassett said all of those numbers are going down, but she could not say what exact metrics would trigger an end to the school mask mandate.

“There’s no one rule, and there probably will never be a one rule that we use for determining where we stand in the pandemic,” Bassett said. “But we are in a very good place.”

Hochul, who ended the statewide mask mandate for businesses on Wednesday, said she wants to be more cautious when it comes to making decisions concerning the health of children.

“Children still need adults to look out for their health,” Hochul said on Wednesday. “This is all about looking out for the health of our children.”

The governor and the public health council are not alone in their decision to keep the school mask mandate in place a little longer. The federal Centers for Disease Control also believes it’s too soon to lift them.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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