As parents rail against masks, SWR school board president says there needs to be an ‘exit strategy’

The president of Shoreham-Wading River’s Board of Education said she believed her fellow board members all want to see an end to the state mask mandate for schools after several speakers spoke against masks at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“On behalf of the Board of Education, I want you to know your voice was heard,” the board president, Katie Andersen said, after residents spent more than 1/2 hour complaining about masks and the mandate that remains in effect. “I think each of us would like to see an end to these mandates. We have been very clear about needing an exit strategy.”

Parents and a handful of students all spoke against the mask policy, with opinions ranging from COVID-19 is “not even a thing anymore,” to that masks are ineffective and cause pimples and rashes, to that adults should not tell children what to do with their bodies. Many urged the board to stand up against the government’s mandate.

Five days earlier, the board held a special meeting via Zoom to approve a resolution to appoint a special counsel to join an amicus curiae brief on the pending court case related to the statewide mandate. The amicus brief was to support the initial ruling that struck down the mandate and does not mean the district is now a party in the lawsuit. The board, by a 4-1 vote, approved the resolution and joined seven other Long Island districts on the brief in advance of the hearing Friday in New York State’s Appellate Division, Second Department. A motion issued Monday following the hearing allowed the mandate to remain in effect pending a hearing and determination of an appeal “on or before March 2, 2022.”

Attorney Nicholas Rigano of the Melville-based firm Rigano LLC provided the legal service to districts pro bono, so there was no cost to the district.

Ms. Andersen said the board convened the emergency meeting with just 45 minutes notice to meet the afternoon deadline. Ms. Andersen was the lone board member to vote no, while Michael Lewis, Thomas Sheridan, Henry Perez and James Smith voted in favor. Board members Robert Rose and Meghan Tepfenhardt did not attend the emergency meeting.

Several speakers questioned Ms. Andersen for voting against the resolution. Ms. Andersen said the board received email that morning about the possibility of joining and she reached out to the rest of the board to see if enough members were available to meet, as well as to convene with the school’s legal counsel to confirm the resolution was something they could approve.

“My no vote is not reflective of my personal stance on masks,” Ms. Andersen said. “It’s not reflective even of my opinion of the [state] supreme court ruling.”

Ms. Andersen said her vote centered on the fact that there was such short notice to put the resolution together and the entire board didn’t get the chance to participate and she added that she didn’t believe the district adding its name would have any bearing on the outcome.

“This particular item, putting our name on it, doesn’t mean Shoreham is for no masks or not,” she said. “It puts us in a position where we participated in the courts, in the legal battle. I don’t want to put our students as pawns, essentially, in the mist of this.”

Brittany Luberda of Wading River, who was questioning Ms. Andersen’s reasoning for the vote, responded by saying that “students are the very center of this” and said any board members who are “not putting our children first” would be voted off the board.

When a Nassau County judge ruled Jan. 24 that the statewide mask mandate violated the state constitution, arguing it should been implemented by a law in the State Legislature, district officials made masks optional for the next school day on Jan. 25. The district then said masks were required again on Jan. 26 once the appeal process began.

Ryan McHale of Shoreham, who has two children in the district, said “80-90% of the kids were not sent to school with masks on” when the district lifted its restrictions for a day.

“The parents of SWR are stating it loud and clear, it is time for our district to act like the leaders and risk takers that we teach our children to be,” he said. “This must end.”

Peggy Ramirez of Shoreham, who said she is a nurse now unable to work in New York due to vaccine mandates for health care workers, said she has four children and her child in first grade struggled with reading last year, which she attributed to masks.

“We need to stop acting like it’s so bad,” she said of the ongoing pandemic. “We need to be better … I just know that we can be the district that is the change. We need a district to stand up.”

When schools reopened in January following the holiday break, Suffolk County and New York were in the midst of record numbers of COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant, and hospitalizations in the county climbed past 1,000. While cases and hospitalizations are declining now past the omicron peak, they are still greater than when school opened in September. In January alone, 392 fatalities in Suffolk were tied to COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

A Jan. 25 message from the Suffolk County Department of Health said that “universal masking has kept the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in our schools extremely low over the past two school years and made the school environment safe for students, teachers and staff.”