State lifts requirement for masks at school

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Students and staff were all masked at an outdoor rally on May 21 at Guilderland High School. Starting Monday, staff and students will not be required by the state to wear masks although individual schools can make stricter requirements.

ALBANY COUNTY — Starting on Monday, staff and students in New York schools are not required to wear masks.
The unexpected change came on Friday in a letter written from New York’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky.

Zucker pointed out the inconsistency between the CDC guidance for schools, requiring masks, and for youth camps, where people don’t need to wear masks outdoors or if they are fully vaccinated.

“As many camps take place on school grounds, both serve school-age children, and the end of the school year/start of the camp season both occur in June, New York State plans to align our school and camp mask guidance ...,” wrote Zucker.

The state’s new recommendations, for indoors, “strongly encourage” but do not require masks for students or campers and staff who are not fully vaccinated. Outdoors, masks are not required although students, campers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated are “encouraged” to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances.

Both indoors and outdoors, students, campers, and staff who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. Finally, schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards.

“Announcing on a Friday afternoon that masks will now be optional for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools starting Monday — with only three weeks remaining in the school year — is whiplash-inducing news,” responded New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement on Friday.

“Short of any additional guidance from the state or the CDC before Monday,” Pallotta went on, “we implore school districts to closely evaluate local conditions and connect with their educators and parents to decide the best course of action for protecting their school community.”

Zucker’s letter to Walensky ended with the words, “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. We plan to make this guidance effective on Monday June 7.”

However, according to a Sunday evening email from the Guilderland school superintendent, Marie Wiles, the State Education Department earlier on Sunday “issued a statement clarifying that per discussion with Executive staff, the intent of Dr. Zucker’s letter was to obtain a response from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding differing standards for summer camps and schools and not to change any existing arrangements. 

“The statement went on to say that the Governor’s Office will not be making any changes until after Monday, June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter. ‘Therefore, schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice.’” 

Based on this guidance from the State Education Department, the Guilderland schools will continue mask-wearing protocols in accordance with the district’s approved reopening plan, Wiles wrote. Mask use is required on school buses, in classrooms, in school hallways, and on playgrounds. Students regularly take mask breaks through the school day, which include during time of physical exertions. 

“Although I understand that many may wish to make immediate changes to our protocols, in the interest of the safety of students and staff, we will await direct guidance and take all relevant facts and factors into consideration before making any changes to our plan,” Wiles wrote.

Locally, as across New York State, cases of COVID-19 in schools has fallen off dramatically in recent weeks.

According to the state’s COVID-19 Report Card, as of Friday evening, Berne-Knox-Westerlo has had 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year — 16 at its secondary school and 14 at its elementary school. BKW has about 780 students.

Voorheesville has had 67 cases: 35 at its high school, 18 at its elementary school, and 14 at its middle school. Voorheesville has about 1,200 students.

The Guilderland School District has had a total of 242 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year. The district has about 4,800 students.

One-hundred-and-twenty-eight of those cases were at Guilderland High School, a tally that also includes district-wide employees like bus drivers; 37 were at Farnsworth Middle School, 21 at Westmere Elementary, 16 were at Lynnwood Elementary School, 15 at Pine Bush Elementary, 14 at Guilderland Elementary School, and 11 at Altamont Elementary School.


Newest numbers

Albany county continues to have single-digit daily increases in new cases. In a release on Friday morning, replacing his usual Friday morning press briefing, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced four new cases of COVID-19, bringing the county’s tally to 24,345.

None of the new cases had a clear source of infection.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased from 4.8 to 4.4. There are now 37 active cases in the county, down from 42 on Thursday.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine decreased to 78 from 92. So far, 79,690 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 24,308 had tested positive and recovered. That is an increase of eight recoveries since Thursday.

There were no new hospitalizations overnight, and nine county residents are now hospitalized from the virus — a net decrease of one. There are still four patients currently in intensive-care units, unchanged from Thursday.

Albany county’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 382.

As of Thursday, as a seven-day rolling average, Albany County had an infection rate of 0.5 percent, according to the state’s dashboard.

New York State, also as of Thursday, as a seven-day rolling average, had an infection rate of 0.6 percent.

According to the state’s vaccine tracker, 62.5 percent of Albany County’s 307,117 residents have received at least a first dose of vaccine against COVID1-9.

Statewide, 54.2 percent of New Yorkers have received a first dose while percent have completed a vaccination series.

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