Masks to be required indoors to start new school year in Riverhead

Students in the Riverhead Central School District will be required to wear masks at the start of the new school year.

In a split vote, the Board of Education approved a reopening plan submitted by Superintendent Augustine Tornatore that requires students to wear masks while indoors. The recommendation during Tuesday’s BOE meeting came after a lengthy comment period that saw residents passionately argue for and against masks.

Board president Laurie Downs cast the deciding vote, as the measure was approved 4-3.

Board members Therese Zuhoski, Christopher Dorr and Brian Connelly voted against the reopening plan, citing the mask mandate and arguing it should be a parent’s choice.

Matthew Wallace, who was voted as board vice president during the meeting, Virginia Healy and the newest board member, Colin Palmer, voted in favor of the plan.

“This has certainly not been an easy decision and I thank the Board of Education for working through this most difficult decision and situation,” Mr. Tornatore said. “And I do want the community to know that we have read through every single email and we have listened to every single person that called.”

More than a dozen residents addressed the board and nearly 30 comments submitted electronically were read aloud during a meeting that at times become contentious with those in attendance interrupting speakers and yelling.

Mr. Tornatore cited the rising infection rate in Suffolk County due to the Delta variant and keeping to the goal of full in-person instruction as key reasons for his recommendation, which follows the guidance the district has received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Suffolk County Department of Health and the New York State Department of Education.

“I’m extremely concerned at this point for our students and our staff,” the superintendent said. “I’m also concerned that at this point children under 12 cannot be vaccinated. And in addition to that, I’m also concerned because more information is becoming available regarding the unknowns of longterm effects of COVID when someone is infected.”

As Mr. Tornatore announced his recommendation, one man in the audience stood up and yelled “sheep!” and left the auditorium as many of the other anti-mask residents followed him, leaving before the board formally voted. “Wait ’til next election!” another woman yelled, although the superintendent position is not elected.

Students will not be required to wear masks in outdoor settings and Mr. Tornatore said teachers will be encouraged to use outdoor spaces as much as possible as weather permits. The mask mandate could be revised as the COVID situation changes.

A more detailed reopening plan is expected to be published on the district website Wednesday.

Ms. Downs said children need to be in school after all the lost time going back to the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“The only way we can get them back into school fully is to have them masked,” she said.

Each board member briefly addressed how they were voting, beginning with Mr. Dorr.

“I cannot vote for any plan that does not leave a mask mandate to the parents’ choice,” he said.

A Health and Safety Guide for the 2021-22 School Year released last week by the State Education Department noted that “the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission levels.”

The governor’s office has so far left these decisions up to individual districts, although incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week that she supported mask mandates in schools, according to media reports.

Correction: Board member Matthew Wallace was incorrectly identified in the original report.