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NY Education Department to schools: Masks still required

June 7, 2021 Marina Villeneuve, Associated Press
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Students, teachers and staff in New York schools were still required to wear masks indoors Monday, despite a conflicting letter from the governor’s health commissioner released days earlier.

The state Education Department sent school district leaders guidance Sunday that said schools should keep requiring masks.

That guidance was in direct contrast with a letter released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office Friday afternoon that sparked confusion around the state.

The governor denied Monday that his administration had caused any “confusion” over mask rules. “We said on Friday we were asking the CDC for guidance and we would tell the schools on Monday what the guidance was,” Cuomo said.

On Friday, Cuomo’s office publicly released a letter in which State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker told the CDC that effective Monday, New York planned to only “strongly” encourage unvaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors at schools, while vaccinated individuals wouldn’t need to wear masks. Schools and camps could adopt stricter rules, he said.

“If there is any data or science that you are aware of that contradicts moving forward with this approach, please let me know as soon as possible,” Zucker wrote. “We plan to make this guidance effective on Monday June 7.”

Cuomo’s office also released a press release Friday that said the state planned to waive the mask mandate for “students outside the building” unless the CDC provided the state with “contrary data or science” before Monday.

School leaders — who have grown to depend on watching Cuomo’s COVID-19 press conferences to learn firsthand about new policy changes — then spent the weekend figuring out their own policies, while some parents took to social media to question why the Cuomo administration made the change with just days left in the school year. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, made clear Friday it planned to keep its mask requirement.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that it was still recommending for schools to mandate masks because of the lack of vaccine eligibility among children below age 12.

Then on Sunday, the state Education Department said that it spoke with members of Cuomo’s executive staff, who said the state’s letter to the CDC was intended to seek advice but hasn’t “changed any existing arrangements.”

“Therefore, schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice,” reads the Education Department’s guidance. “No changes have been, or will be, made by the executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter.”

Cuomo said Monday that he had spoken with the CDC, and that the agency said its COVID-19 guidance wouldn’t change for weeks.

The Cuomo administration did announce one new change Monday: students in New York no longer have to wear masks outdoors. Cuomo said schools will make their own individual decisions.

Cuomo’s initial move was cheered by Republican legislators, who wrote letters to him last week asking that he lift the mask mandate over concern from families about requiring kids to wear masks in anticipated summer heat.

The Cuomo administration started requiring face masks to be worn “at all times” in schools in early April.

Previously, local communities decided whether to require masks in schools.

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