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NY Teachers Seek Mask Mandate

This is a picture of a teacher's classroom desk
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Schools in New York are finalizing plans to partially reopen in a few weeks, and many colleges and universities have already begun classes. But those who work at the schools, including teachers and professors, say guidelines for when to wear masks need to be more comprehensive, to help prevent spread of the coronavirus.

The state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, asking him to revise the policy on masks in schools to make them mandatory while in the classroom. 

“We are calling on the department of health to update its school reopening guidance,” said union President Andy Pallotta, who is also a WAMC commentator. “To make it crystal clear that masks must be worn at all times on school grounds in districts where school buildings are reopening.”  

In the spring, Cuomo issued an executive order that requires masks to be worn by adults and most children while out in public. But schools are not included in that. Instead, the health department mandates the use of masks in schools when six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. Masks are strongly recommended at all other times, including in the classroom, but they are not mandatory once the student is sitting down at a socially-distanced desk.   

As a result, the teachers union says, schools have adopted “disparate” mask policies that have left teachers and some parents uneasy. For example, in the Watkins Glen school district in the Southern Tier, masks will be mandatory in hallways, but not in classrooms. School districts in Batavia in Western New York, Naples  in the Finger Lakes, and Argyle in the Capital Region have adopted similar policies. 

Diane Vanyo, President of the Argyle Teachers Association, says if students don’t have masks in the classrooms, teachers will be limited in their interaction with them, and that could affect learning.   

“We can’t move around and help them on an individual basis,” said Vanyo who said teachers won’t be able to access their smart boards or other technologies used to make lessens more engaging.  

“If a teacher is lecturing from the corner of a classroom behind a Plexiglas shield, we cannot meet that end,” she said.  

She also says teachers could also inadvertently become spreaders of the virus, as they shuttle from classroom to classroom.  

NYSUT, in its letter to the health commissioner, says that requiring temperature screenings and asking about possible COVID-19 symptoms is not enough. Those checks don’t find asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases where the person could be unknowingly spreading the disease. They say face coverings offer the only secure protection. 

Masks would not need to be worn during meals or during brief scheduled break periods during the day.  

The states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, as well as New York City, all require masks at all times in their schools.  

Fred Kowal, the head United University Professions, the union representing college professors and other faculty at the State University of New York, says he’d like to see stricter masks rules in that system, too. 

“Some of the campuses are just saying that as long as you maintain a six-foot distance, you don’t have to wear a mask,” Kowal said. “We don’t think that’s safe.” 

Kowal is also a WAMC commentator.

Governor Cuomo, speaking in a conference call with reporters, says he wants to leave the mask rules as they are. The Democrat says there are “major differences” among school districts in the state, and flexibility is needed. 

“The local school district, they don’t need me to say, in New York City, when the children should wear a mask or in Buffalo or on Long Island,” Cuomo said. “You don’t need a state rule to do something in your school district.” 

But Cuomo says if teachers don’t feel safe, then they should tell their school administrators that they are not returning to teach this year without a mandatory mask rule in place.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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