As N.J. schools drop mask mandate, could New York be next?

Gov. Kathy Hochul met virtually on Tuesday with education leaders from across the state as debate ratchets up over mask mandates in schools. (Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

New York’s health commissioner told lawmakers on Tuesday that there is no date set for lifting the state’s mask mandate in schools, as the governor met with education leaders to map out next steps when it comes to pandemic safety protocols. 

Mask requirements in schools have been a flashpoint throughout the pandemic. The debate has ratcheted up recently with governors in nearby states including New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut announcing sunsets to such mandates.

There is surprisingly little rigorous evidence about the effectiveness – or the harms – of masking students. But polls have consistently shown that most parents and a majority of adults support masking in classrooms, so withdrawing mandates might discourage families from sending their children to school. 

Yet others are concerned that masks make it hard to hear in the classroom and can be difficult for some students to tolerate. Many question whether covering faces will impact their child’s ability to learn and socialize. 

In the Empire State, health officials expect the requirement to mask up in schools will be extended, the Albany Times Union reported. The current order is set to expire Feb. 21. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul met Tuesday with teachers, parents, superintendents, and other school leaders. She called keeping schools open “my top priority” and encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated, as the rates of young New Yorkers getting their shot has remained stubbornly low.  

“As we continue to see cases and hospitalizations decline, I believe it is important to work closely with groups and leaders on the ground so that we move forward in the pandemic in a way where we can stay in front of COVID-19 and keep New Yorkers safe,” Hochul said in a statement. 

Hochul was expected to drop a separate mask mandate set to expire this week that requires businesses to ask customers for proof of vaccination or to wear a mask, according to reports.

In a press release summarizing Tuesday’s meeting, school officials asked for specific and uniform metrics for making decisions regarding masking in schools. 

Mark Cannizzaro, the head of New York City’s Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents school leaders, hinted that changes could be on the way.  

“We are hopeful that circumstances will soon allow for an easing of restrictions while maintaining a safe environment for students and staff,” he said in a statement released by the governor’s office. 

Ultimately, it may be left to local leaders to decide whether to keep mask mandates. In neighboring New Jersey, for example, Newark schools’ masking rules so far remain in place, according to the district. 

In New York City, officials recently stuck by the requirement to wear masks in schools after a court in January briefly struck down the state’s order. 

“If Gov. Hochul lifts the school mask mandate, we will have more to say then,” said New York City education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. 

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