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Protestors rally against mask mandate outside Riverhead High School

An “unmask our kids” rally outside Riverhead High School drew a few dozen protestors Thursday as a court battle continues over the statewide mask mandate that has been in effect since September.

Brianna Richardson, a chairperson with Moms for Liberty in Suffolk County, attended the rally, although her children do not attend the district.

“We do not co-parent with the government,” she said. “They need to stop dictating to us how to raise our children.”

Riverhead’s Board of Education adopted a mask mandate as part of its reopening plan in August, prior to the statewide mandate issued by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said at Tuesday’s BOE meeting that the district hopes to be able to make masks optional at some point, but noted that COVID-19 positivity rates still remain high in the community. There were 1,171 new cases reported in Suffolk County on Wednesday, a positivity rate of 8.3%. Countywide hospitalizations had dipped under 700 as of Tuesday.

The mask policy came back to the forefront this week after 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 said that the directive needed to be passed as a law by the State Legislature.

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. Justice Robert J. Miller, the state appeals court judge, is expected to have another hearing on the matter Friday.

Some students participated in the rally and argued that masking should be optional.

Some of the protestors brought American flags. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

“I think they should give us a choice. If we want to wear a mask, then we wear a mask. If we don’t, then we don’t, there should be no repercussions for us not wearing a mask,” said Luke Pilon, a Riverhead High School junior.

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow) attended the protest and said she believes the decision on masks should be in local control.

“I do believe that it should be in local control and I have advocated for that,” she said.

She supported the parents, students and community members in voicing their opinions and concerns.

“I think that everybody has a right under the Constitution to protest and to express their feelings … I’m happy to see that they’re exercising their constitutional rights,” she said.

The protesters expressed anger toward the administration after claims that students were being separated based on whether they are wearing masks or not. The district confirmed Tuesday that 10 students had arrived at school and refused to wear a mask that was provided. The district said “those students who remained at school were reassigned to locations within our buildings and were supervised by our staff…”

As the protestors stood on the sidewalk in front of the high school, some holding signs or American flags, occasional cars passing by beeped in support. Social media helped inspire similar rallies across the state. A rally is planned in Albany Monday on the steps of the state Capitol.

The state’s current mask mandate, under guidance from the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state and county departments of health, is that all students, teachers, staff and visitors wear masks while indoors at school, regardless of vaccination status.

The Suffolk County Department of Health, in a statement Tuesday, said universal masking has limited spread of COVID-19 in schools and that removal of mitigation measures “increased the potential for viral spread, leading to widespread quarantine and possibly forcing school closures.”