New York State United Teachers — joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, local educators and others — have called on the state to update Department of Health school reopening guidelines to make mandatory the wearing of masks at all times indoors during the school day, except for appropriate break periods and in cases of medical accommodation.
In a letter to state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, the union cited ongoing concerns with school reopening plans across the state and the disparate mask policies that exist among school districts. NYSUT urged the state to look to scientific research showing the efficacy of masks and recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommends the universal use of face coverings. The union also cited a recent change in Pennsylvania guidance to make the use of masks mandatory at all times during the school day.
“Unfortunately, as the beginning of the school year nears and districts continue working out their reopening plans with parents and teachers, we are seeing disparate mask policies that are not leaving parents or educators confident in the safety of their district’s plans,” the letter states. “In reviewing individual reopening plans with educators in the field, it’s clear that numerous plans do not go far enough in their mask mandates to ensure the safety of students and educators.”
“The governor has said — and we agree — that parents and educators must be confident in their school district’s reopening plan in order for this to work,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “As we hear of disparate mask procedures and other issues in reopening plans across the state, it’s clear that the state must step in. Making masks mandatory at all times is one step toward helping address the reservations that still exist regarding reopening school buildings.”
“We are still fighting a global pandemic, and masks are key to protecting others around us,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “That is why they must be central to reopening schools. It’s part of creating confidence in parents, students and school staff by utilizing all the appropriate public health safeguards to prevent the spread of virus in schools. This is not a question of either/or — masks or social distancing when inside schools. To protect the health and safety of everyone in the school community, it’s both/and until the risks from the coronavirus are contained.”
“While our district has adopted a ‘masks on the move’ policy, such as when students are in the hallways, in the classroom, masks will not be required,” said Diane Vanyo, president of the Argyle Teachers Association in the Capital Region. “We have raised numerous concerns with the district about this policy, which we fear will lead to students and teachers coming in and out of confined rooms where masks have not been worn all day. But with no movement on the local level, state action is exactly what we need to ensure we have the safest environment possible for our students and for our staff.”
“Simply put, making it mandatory that masks be worn throughout the school day would make me feel all the more confident that sending my children back to their classrooms is a safe option,” said Brandon Johnson, a parent of a fifth grader and eighth grader and an educator in Horseheads in the Southern Tier. “As a parent, I don’t feel the district has taken adequate steps to address this concern. It’s time the state stepped in and made this policy simple for every district statewide.”
“The science is clear that masks are among the most effective ways we can reduce the spread of this virus,” said Dr. Jana Shaw, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse. “It’s essential that schools do everything in their power to help keep children and adults safe in school buildings so they can focus on their education in a healthy environment. Strong mask policies have helped us get the virus under control in New York, so it only makes sense that schools would follow a uniform mandatory mask guideline across the state.”
“Masks throughout the school day with social distancing in the classrooms is not only appropriate based on the available science, but it is the best way to protect students, teachers and staff during this pandemic,” said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine for Northwell Health on Long Island.
As NYSUT has said throughout the school reopening process this summer, health and safety must be at the forefront. A recent poll of NYSUT members showed that 81 percent believe the health and safety of students and staff should be the deciding factor in reopening schools.
In addition to revising statewide guidelines regarding the use of masks, the union continues to advocate for a statewide policy for closing school buildings in which there is a positive COVID-19 case for 14 days, and clear protocols for how testing, contact tracing and quarantining will be performed in schools.
NYSUT has been clear that if steps are not taken that instill confidence in individual school reopening plans, if there are any questions about safety or if any district’s plan is missing any details, that district must begin the year with remote learning.
“Educators and parents agree: School districts need to err on the side of caution,” Pallotta said. “Safety must continue to be the top priority.”