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By Alice Gerard
As of Wednesday, wearing a mask became optional in Grand Island schools. This was in response to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement on Sunday of the state’s plan to end the mask requirement in schools starting on that date.
Dr. Brian Graham, superintendent of the Grand Island Central School District, said, “The shift to a ‘mask optional’ policy will feel to many like the end of a very difficult period of time in the world and in our community. Please know how grateful the Board of Education and I are to our entire staff, students and their families for all that has been accomplished during the pandemic.”
According to Kara Kane, spokesperson for the Erie County Health Department, Erie County can shift to a “mask optional” policy because the county is “currently at ‘medium,’ based on COVID-19 hospitalization measures.” This is based on new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “which categorizes all U.S. counties with a ‘community COVID-19 level.’ ”
Lynn Ortiz, principal of St. Stephen School, said, “St. Stephen’s School has been committed to offering five days of in-person instruction, while also keeping our students, teachers and staff safe during the pandemic. We remained open during the most challenging times and were able to offer in-person instruction for the entire 2020-2021 school year. We will continue to focus on offering the best education possible while also hoping to keep our positive COVID cases to a minimum.”
Hochul’s decision that masks would no longer be required in school is based on analysis of several key coronavirus data trends, and consultations with health and education experts, plus parents, teachers and school administrator, explained the governor’s team.
The announcement also follows recent changes in metrics used by the CDC to determine risk and transmission levels in communities.
Hochul’s team said, “Other mitigation measures should remain in place.”
She stated, "With more New Yorkers getting vaccinated, and the steady decline over the past several weeks in cases and hospitalizations from omicron, we are now entering a new phase of the pandemic. Because New Yorkers have stepped up, we can confidently remove the statewide mask requirement in our schools. This is a huge step forward for our kids and communities, and I am grateful to the students, educators and parents for their dedication to keeping us all safe – we've reached this milestone because of your hard work."
Hochul’s team said, “New York has made significant progress in the fight against COVID-19. Among large states, New York has the highest rate of adults fully vaccinated for COVID-19, the highest rate of teenagers fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and the second-highest rate of children ages 5-11 fully vaccinated. New York state has experienced a 98% decline in COVID-19 cases since the omicron peak, and a continuous downward trend in cases for 51 consecutive days.
“The number of children testing positive for COVID is declining to levels not seen since before students returned from summer break; yesterday, 229 cases were reported compared to a seven-day average of 832 cases at the beginning of the school year. Pediatric hospitalizations have declined by roughly 80% since the omicron peak.”
Ahead of midwinter break, 4.8 million tests were sent to schools for children to take home. An additional 4.8 million tests will be sent this week for students to take home upon their return to school. In total, 20.8 million tests have been distributed to schools. Over the past six weeks, the state established 261 #VaxForKids sites, bringing the vaccine directly to New York families to help parents and guardians get their eligible children vaccinated and boosted.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said, "Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, today we are able to lift the statewide mask requirement for schools. As Gov. Hochul said, we will remain vigilant as New York moves forward, and our team at the Department of Health will continue to monitor the data and advance early warning monitoring systems like wastewater surveillance. We continue to urge all New Yorkers to get vaccinated and get boosted, and we will work with our partners in education statewide to ensure our schools, teachers and students have the support they need to keep our classrooms healthy and safe."
Recommendations from the Erie County Department of Health for people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease include talking to your health care provider about the necessity for wearing a mask and having a plan for rapid testing, if needed (such as having home tests or access to testing). Kane added, “Talk to your health care provider about whether you are a candidate for treatments like oral antivirals, PrEP, and monoclonal antibodies.” She said people who live with or have social contact with people who are at high risk for severe disease “should consider self-testing to detect infection before contact and consider wearing a mask when indoors with them.”
Kane said the health department also recommends that such people stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, maintain improved ventilation throughout indoor space when possible, and follow CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine, including getting tested if you are exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19.
According to Kane, “The Erie County Department of Health has adapted a document from the Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Workgroup and Common Ground Health: School Masking Facts, What public health experts in Erie County want you to know. It will be updated regularly with recent COVID-19 vaccination rates. We encourage you to share this document with your staff and families. ECDOH does not have plans to require masks in school settings, though as a public health measure, masks are a preventive tool that reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. Individuals who wish to continue wearing a mask in school or extracurricular settings should not be discouraged from doing so.”
The ECDOH is “providing a supply of KN94 masks in adult and pediatric sizes for schools, and communications will be sent out separately on that topic,” Kane said.
State Education Commissioner Dr. Betty A. Rosa said, "I thank the governor for her leadership. Working together we look forward to keeping our schools safe for students and educators."
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said, “We welcome this step toward normalcy. The governor is striking the right balance by empowering local officials to use data to determine if and when the mitigation strategies need to change in their areas. As the guidance changes, one thing must remain constant: It’s essential that districts work closely with educators to ensure there is confidence in their health and safety plans.”
NYSUT is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care. It is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
Graham explained, “Mask wearing is very much encouraged for any staff member or student who feels as though they would feel more comfortable wearing one after March 2. We have stationed a supply of N95 masks at each school, in addition to the procedural masks that we've been offering, for any student and staff member who wants one. We are in the process of securing more N95 masks in child sizes. We will have a full supply of child-sized masks very soon.
“Our Grand Island Central District is home to 2,800 students, plus hundreds of staff and visitors who are in our schools every day. Each person who walks in our doors has their own opinions, styles, preferences and beliefs. Starting Wednesday, we'll add the choice of mask wearing, and do so with the unmistakable expectation that every student and staff member will be respected for the choice they make regarding whether or not to wear a mask.”
•Read responses from Grand Islanders about the new mask guidelines HERE.