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Williamsville parents want indoor mask mandates lifted in schools, health experts advise caution

New York State Senators joined parents outside of a Williamsville school board meeting Tuesday night to voice their frustration over the current mask mandates. In June, Governor Cuomo announced school districts can allow students to remove masks outdoors. A guidance on mask use indoors still remains in place.

Williamsville and Orchard Park parents were in court against their districts this past May and were successfully granted a temporary return to in person full time instruction for students.

Parents outside of Monday's board meeting like Dana Hensley say they will go back to court if mask mandates are not lifted ahead of a return to school this fall.

“We have decided to pull together with other parent groups across the state to bring in another article 78 against the governor,” Hensley said.

Hensley is a member of Western New York Student's First, a group that identifies as
a 'non-partisan group of parents, caregivers, teachers, and school district stakeholders across Western New York working toward the common goal of giving students and families an organized and active voice regarding the education of students within their districts.'

WNY Student’s First has supported legal action that challenges 'current state guidance for students and children that mandates universal masking for all.'

Through prior experiences, Hensley said the court has appeared to be their only pathway forward.

“When we went to court, the state didn't have any evidence," Hensley said. "The state had the state had zero evidence that there was any difference in transmission between three and six weeks,” Hensley said.

New York State Senate minority leader Rob Ortt met with parents before last night’s board meeting, asking the state to lift mask mandates ahead of the fall school year.

“I think importantly, going forward, let school districts that are elected to the school boards, that are elected superintendents that work for you, let them have some autonomy to make decisions,” Ortt said.

Ortt went on to say the current mandates are hypocritical.

“These kids are at sporting events. They are at restaurants. They're almost everywhere else in society at this point without masks. And yet when they come to school, they have to have the mask on," Ortt said. "The more our society reopens, which is a good thing, the harder it is to justify the mask mandate for our school children. There has not been any massive spread from schools. We know kids are far less likely to get seriously ill if they were to contract it, God forbid, but I think we've reached a point where this should be lifted.”

Dr. Dennis Kuo, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Buffalo, said he understands some parents' frustration, but that COVID needs to be highly respected.

“We know that over the last year COVID actually ended up being one of the leading causes of deaths and hospitalizations for children," Kuo said. "It is true that there's a lot of children who will have either minor or no symptoms. But I think there was also kind of an impression, which is not correct, that children cannot get COVID. And we know that children not only can get COVID, they can get it quite readily and they can spread it.”

Kuo added there's a lot of very complicated factors that goes into mask requirements.

“I think we're at the point where we need to discuss specifics about the safety of whether there should be mask mandates or not mask mandates," Kuo said. "But I do think it's an area where we need to respectfully consider the science behind the safety and the effectiveness of masks.

State Senator Ed Rath, who stood next to Ortt in addressing parents, said schools are being held to an unfair advantage given the current state of COVID in the region.

“I think we have to pay attention to any changing variables as they occur," Rath said referenceing possible variants down the line. "But I think with the 70% immunization that we see in New York State, the herd immunity that we're approaching, people need to have confidence that life can return to normal. And with their children going back to school in a normal environment, that gives people confidence. Let's turn the page and move past this pandemic as soon as we can.”

Ortt echoed Rath's sentiment, adding communities shouldn't live in a constant state of fear.

"There could be a variant, there's something else could happen. We don't know. The truth is we never know, or we don't know what the future holds," Rath said. "But we know what we're dealing with today. And there's no reason today, that (Governor Cuomo) should be continuing this order."

Kuo said Western New York is currently at the border of being able to successfully test, trace and isolate.

“We're already seeing a bit of an uptick in cases, they are still relatively low compared to other parts of the country. And I think that we're in a very good place for that," Kuo said. "But it really was a combination of our vaccination rates and our masking that drove the rates down. Once we lift requirements or mandates or even just the social acceptance of widespread mask wearing within the expected strongpoint, there's a possibility to cases go up.”

Masks can also protect individuals with disabilities who may be at more risk for severe illness.

"(COVID) is something that can impact how families of children and adults with disabilities may be calculating about how much they want to get out and about," Kuo said. "That's just something that I'm seeing in my own practice and in my conversations with folks around the country, and it is something that we have to consider as a community. These factors for a mask or no mask as a community, they have gotten a little more nuanced, or actually considerably more nuanced, because we do have the vaccines and our rates are relatively low in Western New York right now. But we have to be very careful about what happens and about how we act as we reopen our society."

So what's ahead for the new Williamsville Schools Superintendent as the school year comes to a close? Dr. Darren Brown-Hall gave his first community update at last night’s board of education meeting, focusing on what’s needed for summer schooling.

“Just a few reminders regarding health and safety, parents still need to fill out the daily COVID-19 health screening questionnaire for their students," Brown-Hall said. "Masks are still required to be worn in school. The district is discontinuing, however, the daily COVID-19 report and will notify families if there's a positive case in the district.”

Brown-Hall assumed the post following the resignation of former district superintendent Scott Martzloff in November 2020.

Martzloff was placed on leave last September after an independent report found Williamsville Schools didn’t open effectively in September, pointing to the pandemic, district culture and lack of active leadership as factors.

It’s not clear as of now in what capacity Williamsville schools will open up this fall. Brown-Hall will be holding listening tours that allow district stakeholders to get to know the new superintendent and provide feedback on ideas for the district.

The first of those four events begins Wednesday night at 5:30 PM at Heim Middle School.

All other tours will be held next week, including a virtual tour Tuesday July 13. In person attendees are asked to wear a mask and fill out a COVID-19 health screening questionnaire.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
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