Featured Story

Riverhead superintendent: ‘Rollercoaster situation’ on mask mandate in schools

Riverhead superintendent Augustine Tornatore addressed the ongoing confusion related to masks in schools at Tuesday night’s virtual Board of Education meeting, referring to the prior 24 hours as a “rollercoaster situation.”

He tried to reassure the community that the mask mandate the BOE approved prior to the school year as part of its reopening plan allows the district flexibility to pivot away from mandating masks, if the directive from the state ultimately changes.

“As we take a look at the declining numbers of the infection rate of COVID-19, currently it is at 10%, which is still quite high but the numbers do seem to be reducing,” he said. “So at a future date — again dependent upon how things work out with the legal court situation and the governors directive, aside from that, we do hope at some point that we are able to move to masks being optional.”

Christopher Venator, an attorney for the district, outlined the legal situation that unfolded starting Monday night when a Nassau County Supreme Court judge ruled that the state’s mandate in schools was enacted unlawfully and in violation of the New York State Constitution. The judge that the directive needed to be done by the State Legislature passing a law. An Appellate Court judge on Tuesday issued a motion that upholds the state’s mask mandate until a further decision is made on the state’s appeal, likely by the end of the week.

“We can anticipate in all likelihood that on Friday — at some point on Friday — that the Appellate Divisions Second Judicial Department will render a decision in terms of whether or not to further stay the determination of the Nassau County Supreme Court,” Mr. Venator said.

He said the mask mandate remains in effect for schools through the end of the week.

“We should have further clarification probably at some point, afternoon or late afternoon on Friday, with respect to whether or not that stay is going to continue or whether or not it’s going to be denied,” Mr. Venator said.

During the public comments section of the meeting, district clerk Lisa Rheaume read the public comments to the board, which were largely in opposition to the mask mandate.

Some residents threatened legal action against the district if their child is sent home for failing to wear a mask. The district reported Tuesday that 10 children across the seven district buildings failed to comply with wearing a mask when provided one.

“As per our protocols, the students’ parents were contacted, and they were asked to pick up their child,” the district statement said. “Those students who remained at school were reassigned to locations within our buildings and were supervised by our staff for the remainder of the day.”

Some parents during the public comment also claimed the district was putting money and politics above the children. One commenter pushing for masks to be optional claimed the “mental terrorism on our children is unacceptable.”

The BOE meeting was held virtually due to high rates of transmission in the community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained its guidance that schools should have universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. The Suffolk County Department of Health, in a statement Tuesday, said it supports the indoor masking policy, which “has kept the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in our schools extremely low over the past two years and made the school environment safe for students, teachers and staff.”

Cases of COVID-19, while declining since the omicron-fueled peak in early January, are still significantly higher than when the school year began in September.

“While our situation regarding the winter surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has been improving, transmission remains high in Suffolk County and it is important to keep mitigation measures, such as masking, in place until we arrive at a point where cases and hospitalizations return to previously low levels.”

The Shoreham-Wading River School District had informed parents Tuesday morning that masks would be optional, defying the directive sent from the State Department of Education the prior evening that schools should continue to enforce masking policies. The district reversed course as school reopened Wednesday following the Appellate Court motion.

“The district has consistently followed NYS COVID-19 laws,” an update sent to parents from the district Tuesday evening said.” As a result of today’s court order, masks must be again be required for staff and students in our schools beginning tomorrow.”

SWR superintendent Gerard Poole did not return a message for comment.

New York Attorney General Letitia James field the appeal on behalf of the state.

“This mandate and today’s decision are critical in helping to stop the spread of this virus and protect individuals young and old,” she said in a statement Tuesday evening. “We will continue to do everything in our power to prioritize the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers.”