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WNY school officials praise Hochul for 'clarity' on mask mandate

WNY school officials praise Hochul for 'clarity' on mask mandate

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Gov. Kathy Hochul's announcement Tuesday of a universal mask mandate in all New York State K-12 schools was welcomed by some, opposed by others, and not unexpected.

Hochul, in her first address after being sworn in as governor, said she is directing the state Health Department to institute universal masking for anyone entering schools.

"Priority No. 1: We get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn and everyone is safe," Hochul said, adding that she has been consulting with parents, elected officials, teachers, school boards and superintendents for months.

She also said the state needs to require vaccinations for all school personnel, with an option for those who are unvaccinated to take weekly Covid-19 tests, "at least for now." New York City on Monday went a step further, announcing that all teachers and school employees must have received at least a first vaccine dose in order to work beyond Sept. 27.

The governor also said the state is launching a back-to-school Covid-19 testing program to make testing for students and staff "widely available and convenient."

Read the full story from News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious

She pledged to provide "concise and consistent" guidance for schools by the end of the week – which was welcome news to local leaders.

"I think clarity is something that has been much needed," said Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell, who is president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association. "I think the expectation that the state would mandate masks was always a part of our thinking." 

A mask mandate is not new to Erie County schools, after the county issued guidance Monday saying that masks are required for all those in school. It is in line with guidelines updated this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But it is a different story in Niagara County, where some school districts had planned to strongly recommend, but not require masks. Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie said the district planned to require masks if and when there were 100 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people over seven days. 

"Right now in classrooms, we’re strongly, strongly, strongly recommending, but not mandating. However, that all goes out the window if the governor mandates it,” Laurrie said prior to Hochul's address.

The county transmission rate was in the low 70s per 100,000 residents Tuesday, which is below the CDC's 100 per 100,000 threshold for “high transmission.”

“We’ve been telling them since Day One, we strongly recommend they follow the CDC guidance, and that’s what they’ve been doing so far,” Niagara County Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said of school districts. 

Lockport Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said her district “will be following CDC guidelines of universal masking in school as we transition back in September to five days in-person instruction.”

“We all know these numbers will come and go,” Stapleton said. “Today our numbers are not where we want them to be, but they could be worse. It changes day to day." 

The mandate is all but certain to generate legal challenges.

Attorney Corey Hogan, founding partner of HoganWillig, said he was not sure how the governor's announcement will affect a case he filed in state Supreme Court challenging the state's previous mask mandate. He said his law firm has hundreds of plaintiffs ready to sign on to a challenge to masks in federal court, but he was waiting to see which entities to bring to court.

"We knew some type of mandate would probably come," Hogan said. "If, in fact, the Department of Health does issue some type of a mandate, rather than a guideline, then we'll know where to go. I don't think they have the authority to do that."

The New York State Council of School Superintendents welcomed Hochul's mask requirement.

"Throughout the pandemic, we have asked state officials to give us flexibility on educational matters, but to give us clear state rules on issues of protecting the health of our students and our employees," Executive Director Charles Dedrick said in a statement. “Being careful to start the year could spare our students from having to return to remote-only instruction, as has already happened in some southern states with earlier school starts."

Dedrick also recommended the state establish criteria for ending mask requirements. 

That's something parents want to see, also.

"Parents need to see some light at the end of the tunnel. We need to see some off ramps," said Tarja Parssinen of Western New York Students First.

The group does not support arbitrary or long-term mask mandates, but it said in a statement it understands they may be useful to keep children out of quarantine, or when children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine and community infection rates are high.  

"Once the vaccine is available to everyone, I don't think there needs to be quarantines or masks," Parssinen said.

And New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta praised Hochul's actions.

"We support universal mask wearing as part of a layered mitigation strategy that also includes robust Covid testing, contract tracing, proper ventilation and other strategies recommended by public health experts," he said in a statement. "We also support the governor’s move to require regular Covid testing for school staff who are not yet vaccinated.”

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