Riverhead BOE revises mask policy as state lifts school mandate starting Wednesday

The Riverhead Board of Education voted to revise the district’s reopening plan to remove mandatory mask requirements in district buildings at a virtual meeting Monday evening.

The action came after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday the statewide mask mandate would end starting Wednesday. The governor’s decision follows a shift in guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday, which said masks can be worn based on personal preference in communities marked as low level of COVID-19. The community level in Suffolk County is currently low.

The board unanimously approved the measure at the special meeting.

Board members Christopher Dorr, Brian Connelly and Therese Zuhoski commented on the decision.

“I’d just like to say that I’m glad that she’s finally gotten around to lifting this unlawful mandate,” said Mr. Dorr, who had been against any mask mandates throughout the school year.

Ms. Zuhoski said she always supported students and staff members having an option on masks.

“I’m in full support of mask optional and I’m glad that our community is going to be able to make their own choice,” she said.

Mr. Connelly added: “I hope going forward, no matter the choice of wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, I hope that everyone is treated with respect and kindness and will respect their choices going forward and I’m just happy that we can move forward in a new direction and put this behind us.”

The seven-day positivity rate for Suffolk County currently stands at 1.9%, down from 23.2% in January when the omicron wave fueled the highest rate of cases since the pandemic began. The governor said Sunday the number of infected school-aged children in the state is also at its lowest point since July.

Counties and cities can still enact their own mandates, although there was no indication Suffolk County planned to do so. At schools, the governor said the choice will now be left up to parents.

“Individual parents have their own knowledge of their children, they know their own children’s health, they know their tolerance for the masks,” she said.

On Aug. 17, Riverhead’s school board adopted a district mask mandate in its reopening plan, preparing for the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. At the time, the Delta variant was fueling a spike in cases. There was also uncertainty about whether a statewide mandate would be in effect. Outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared in favor of leaving the decision up to individual districts, but after his resignation, the new governor promptly implemented the mandate.

Health officials have credited the mask policies for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools and preventing disruptions that could have forced schools to revert to remote learning.

At Riverhead’s Feb. 8 BOE meeting, the board voted to remove the district mask mandate from the reopening plan when the governor lifted the statewide mandate in schools. Three out of the five board members voted in favor, but the measure failed since it did not receive at least four votes. Two board members were absent at the meeting. The board members who voted against it said they felt it would be better to wait and see how numbers progressed and said the board could hold a special meeting to revise the policy, as it ultimately did Monday.