SWR plans to finalize decision on masks at Aug. 24 meeting

With just two weeks to go before the start of school, local districts are starting to offer parents a clearer picture of their reopening plans.

But several factors remain that have created some uncertainty as to what school will look like in 2021-22, including a rising number of COVID-19 cases attributed to the Delta variant and the prospect that a new governor could introduce stricter guidelines.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will take office Tuesday, has already said schools should anticipate a mandate on the wearing of masks, perhaps the most discussed issue heading into the new school year.

“My view is people and children and everyone in a school environment will be wearing masks,” Ms.  Hochul said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show last Thursday.

The incoming governor, who will take over for Gov. Andrew Cuomo once his resignation takes effect, then created some confusion about her statement by adding that’s just an opinion and she doesn’t have the authority currently. “We’re going to leave it up to the school districts right now, but we’re going to monitor this closely,” she said. “I believe that there will end up being mask mandates.”

With that in mind, area superintendents began unveiling their own plans this week, with superintendents in Greenport and Riverhead saying students and staff in their schools will be required to wear masks.

“We have lots of guidance for schools; none of it is binding,” said SWR Superintendent Gerard Poole, who recalls sifting through 200 pages of state documents last year related to pandemic issues.

Schools facing a September start must figure out their approach, including the question of whether to require students to wear masks in school.

That was the topic at Tuesday night’s SWR Board of Education meeting. After Mr. Poole outlined the district’s options, school board members heard from eight speakers, seven of whom pleaded that parents, students and staff be allowed to choose whether to don masks instead of having the face coverings forced upon them.

The district’s plans are to be finalized Aug. 24.

“One of the things that bothers me the most about the mask mandate or lack thereof, really, is the hypocrisy, because COVID hasn’t changed and people haven’t changed and kids haven’t changed and how you get it hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t matter where you are, the rules are all the same,” Colette Grosso of Shoreham, a district staff member who has children attending school in the district, told the board. “And yet, when it comes to school, the rules are completely different. We’ve all lived our lives this entire summer with some degree of normality, not having to wear your masks everywhere you go. You don’t have to wear them in the supermarkets or at restaurants or gatherings with your friends, going to barbecues, concerts, the beach, etcetera, and even camps this summer said you didn’t have to wear them.”

Others expressed concern about the mental toll wearing masks has on students.

“I’m not a biologist. I’m not an immunologist. I’m not a public health official, but I am a mom, so I’m uniquely experienced in my three children, and I can tell all of you personally that I had a varied range of responses in regards to wearing masks last year from all three of them,” Sarah Perez of Wading River said. “It affected one of them more than the rest. I know better than anybody … I want it to be up to me to decide if the risks and the benefits outweighs the good, like I want to be able to decide for him and help him decide for himself whether or not the mask is doing more harm than good. It’s up to us. We are experts in our children. That’s our job. And we are here this time to stand up for them and speak. So when you’re making your decisions — and I don’t envy your position because it is going to be very difficult the next couple of weeks for you to form up plans — please consider that there are mental health issues at play here.”

A father, Matthew Towers of Shoreham, said when he looks at his 5-year-old son wearing a mask “I see a lack of confidence and I see a lack of excitement. He is a very excited kid. I actually have a lot of concerns about depression and things like that; kids hiding behind masks, kids going under the radar.”

Mandates were loosened this past winter and spring as conditions improved, but positivity rates are on the rise. Mr. Poole noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated Suffolk County as a high-risk area. As of Sunday, he said, the county’s positivity rate was 5.6% compared to 1% exactly a year earlier. “It’s hard to believe we are, you know, back, you know, where maybe we were in early spring or winter.”

That leads to the question of masks. The CDC recommends indoor masking for teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools. That guidance is mirrored by the Suffolk County Department of Health. But, again, those are recommendations, not mandates.

“It’s a district option for staff,” Mr. Poole said. “It’s a district option for students. It’s a district option for visitors.”

And there is the matter of social distancing. Does the district want students kept at least six feet apart or three feet apart, as recommended by the county health department?

Mr. Poole said masking and social distancing may be impactful decisions when it comes to contact tracing, quarantines and isolation, which are required under public health law for contagious diseases.

In the last school year, SWR dealt with 193 COVID-19 cases, affecting 7.4% of the district’s staff and students, according to Mr. Poole.

“We’re going on to the third school year that’s touched by COVID,” Ms. Perez said. “It’s not going anywhere. At some point, there’s going to have to be a point where everyone says, ‘We’re just going to have to learn to live with it.’ We can try to prevent it for now, but we’re 18 months into this, and now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that next year I could be standing here again, asking for my child to be able to go to school without a mask.”