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Cuomo Revises School Mask Policy: Yes Inside, No Outside

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a briefing Feb. 1, 2021.

Following a weekend of confusion for school children, their parents and teachers, Governor Andrew Cuomo is clarifying changes in mask policy for schools in New York. The Democrat now says children don’t have to wear masks outside, but do have to wear them inside.  On Friday afternoon, Cuomo and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, took schools by surprise, when they released a letter they wrote to the federal CDC. In it, Zucker said that beginning Monday, the state would eliminate the requirement that children wear masks in schools, in order to make the policy consistent with summer camp rules that say no masks are required. Zucker asked CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to let him know as soon as possible if any data or science would contradict the state moving forward with the change. Otherwise, Zucker wrote, “we plan to make this guidance effective on Monday, June 7.”  

The announcement began a weekend of confusion and anxiety for school leaders, teachers and parents who said they would have to once again reconfigure classrooms and alter other protocols to comply with the change, and that two days was not enough time. New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta, who is WAMC commentator, called the announcement “whiplash-inducing news.”  

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt, who agrees with the need to end masks in schools, says the announcement was poorly handled. 

“I have received phone calls from superintendents in my district who are utterly angry, who are upset, and who are confused,” Ortt said. “They are getting phone calls from parents who are angry, upset and confused.”  

The state’s Education Department, which is not part of Cuomo’s administration, on Sunday issued a contradictory order, saying that for now, all students at the state’s public K through 12 schools must continue to wear masks until the CDC changes its policy. 

Cuomo, on Monday modified the directive, saying masks will continue to be required inside the classroom, but that students can take them off when they are outdoors. The governor says the CDC agrees with his decision.   

“Children wear masks in school, inside,” Cuomo said. “There is no mandate for masks outside.” 

Individual school districts will still have the final say on whether to continue to require masks outdoors.  

Cuomo denies there was ever any uncertainty over the initial order. He says he never said the policy was changing on Monday.  

“There was no confusion with the schools,” Cuomo said. “We said on Friday we were asking the CDC for guidance and we would tell the schools on Monday, what the guidance was. Which I just did. We never said on Monday anything goes into effect.”     

But Zucker’s Friday letter clearly states that the no mask policy was to begin Monday. 

Senator Ortt says his colleagues in the Senate, along with Republicans in the Assembly, will push in the remaining days of the session for a measure to remove the governor’s emergency powers to impose pandemic related restrictions. 

“If there’s ever been an advertisement to remove these powers, it’s been the last 48, 72 hours,” Ortt said.  

The governor also says once 70% of all New Yorkers over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, he will lift more pandemic-related restrictions, including capacity restrictions, social distancing rules, health screenings, and contact tracing requirements. The unvaccinated will still have to wear masks and practice social distancing. Private businesses will be allowed to continue some restrictions, and requirements, like the wearing of face coverings.  

And, large-scale event venues, schools, public transit, homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings must continue the restrictions until more New Yorkers are vaccinated.  

Cuomo says as of Sunday, 68.6% of New Yorkers over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Health Commissioner Zucker predicts the 70% threshold could come as early as the first week of July. 

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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