Teachers urge state to mandate masks

Associated Press Dr. Howard Zucker, left, commissioner of the state Department of Health, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo discuss the coronavirus pandemic during a media conference on March 2 in New York City.

ALBANY — Citing "disparate" classroom reopening plans, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) are calling for a statewide requirement that masks be worn in New York school buildings during the school day.

"Making masks mandatory at all times is one step toward helping address the reservations that still exist regarding reopening school buildings,” the teachers' union president, Andy Pallotta, said Thursday.

NYSUT, in a letter to state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, noted the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends the universal use of cloth face coverings to curb the spread of coronavirus. The state of Pennsylvania has recently updated its schools reopening roadmap to include a mandate that masks be worn throughout the school day, NYSUT noted.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been given special powers by the Legislature to manage the pandemic, decided three weeks ago that school districts should have flexibility in how they resume classes, stating, "There is no one size that fits all."

He has also ordered the school districts to submit their reopening plans to state officials, and hold meetings with both parents and teachers to explain how reopening will work. Some districts have opted for a "hybrid" approach to reopening, incorporating both traditional classroom instruction with students in the buildings along with online instruction, while others plan to only hold classes in the schools and still others have moved all instruction online.

While it is unclear if the state will embrace the mask mandate, Cuomo signaled Thursday that New York's universities and colleges will be required to shift instruction online for at least 14 days if they experience a surge in COVID-19 infections.

The state is braced for the potential of outbreaks of the contagion in the weeks ahead, Cuomo said.

The shift to online classes would be triggered if 5% of enrolled students at a campus become infected, or if at least 100 cases are detected. The threshold had been set at 9% of the student body becoming infected, but fresh reports of outbreaks at colleges across the country prompted the more aggressive standard in New York.

If the threshold is reached, dining halls would become takeout-only affairs while all athletic programs and other extracurricular activities would be suspended.

At least 13 students at SUNY Oneonta have tested positive, The Daily Star reported. Infections have also been reported at the State University at Albany and SUNY Cobleskill.

Meanwhile, there was a new wrinkle in plans by some districts to resume some interscholastic athletics, a step Cuomo has allowed them to take.

The State Council of School Superintendents said the allowed sporting events could create unacceptable risks as schools try to bring students back to classrooms while minimizing the potential for new infections.

“We have struggled to reconcile why students in physical education classes must be 12 feet apart per reopening guidance, yet contact athletics and other activities that regularly bring athletes into close proximity are deemed safe at this time,” the council said in a letter to Cuomo.

The superintendents are asking the resumption of athletics be postponed to January 1.

"As we approach the new year," the superintendents told Cuomo, "we should collaborate with all stakeholders to develop and agree on a plan to consolidate all three athletic seasons into the second semester so that student-athletes have an equitable opportunity to participate in the sport of their choice."

In recent weeks, the Cuomo administration has announced numerous enforcement actions against restaurant and taverns accused of flouting reopening rules such as serving alcoholic beverages to persons who did not order a meal.

Arguing some of those actions have been "harsh," a group of 25 state senators, led by state Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, urged State Liquor Authority commissioners to "cut back on the exorbitant fines and create due process for restaurant owners who are learning new guidelines during the reopening process."

The state agency has indicated its penalties have been commensurate with the seriousness of the violations uncovered by inspections.

On the infection front, Cuomo noted he is concerned the Western New York region has had an elevated rate of positive results from virus testing for nine consecutive days. The region experienced more than 100 new infections Thursday.

The uptick appears to be paced by a cluster of COVID-19 cases at a Chautauqua County processing plant, though there are also indications community spread has played a role, officials said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

Recommended for you