New York state will no longer require schools to mandate masks for students, teachers and staff even if they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19. State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker announced the policy switch in a letter sent Friday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York City officials later countered and said the city would continue to require masking in its public schools.
Zucker said in the letter he would expand the federal agency’s recent guidance that summer camps no longer need to require masks on campers and apply it to New York school districts for the sake of “consistency” unless the CDC directs him otherwise.
“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 as follows,” Zucker wrote in his letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Inside school and camp buildings, “mask use will be strongly encouraged but not required for students, campers, and staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated,” Zucker said.
No one needs to don a face covering outdoors, Zucker said, though “staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated are ‘encouraged’ to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances.”
His letter did not address distancing requirements for either inside or outside schools and camps.
Zucker added that if these facilities wish to have stricter protocols than the state mandate, they can continue to do so. A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education said its schools would continue to follow its previous policies on masks.
“The health and safety of our students, educators and staff remain our top priority. Per State guidance, local districts may implement standards that make the most sense for their communities, and we are continuing with our universal mask policy at our schools,” said Danielle Filson of the DOE in a statement.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran hailed the state’s guidance, saying in a statement: “Today’s lifting of the mask mandate in schools will finally put (the) decision in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best. I’ve been pushing for this change, and I am excited that our protocols are moving to match the tremendous progress we have made.”
Zucker stated the updated guidance would go into effect as early as Monday if he receives no objection from the CDC.“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,” the commissioner wrote.
(Update: Jade Fulce, a spokesperson for the CDC, said in a statement the agency “recommends schools and childcares continue to use the current COVID-19 prevention strategies for the 2020-2021 school year.”
“The recommendation to continue with these prevention strategies is based on youth aged 12-15 not being able to be fully vaccinated before the end of the current school year and youth under 12 not yet being eligible for vaccinations. Additionally, schools need time to make systems and policy adjustments,” Fulce said, adding, “Current evidence demonstrates that consistent mask use indoors among people two and older who are not fully vaccinated, along with other preventive strategies, is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19.” She said the CDC will issue updated guidance for schools and childcare programs “in the coming weeks.” Fulce did not immediately answer a question about whether the CDC will approve New York state’s request.)
The state’s federation of more than 1,200 teachers unions called the move “whiplash-inducing news.”
“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,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, in a statement. “Short of any additional guidance from the state or the CDC before Monday, 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.”
Currently, people older than 12 are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued new rules that young kids between 2-5 years old will no longer be required to wear masks this summer at New York’s camps and childcare programs.
New Jersey has not shifted its school masks guidance as of Friday, with the state still requiring students and staff to wear “face coverings at all times while inside a school building, regardless of social distancing, unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or for other outlined exceptions.”
The New Jersey Department of Health released summer camp guidance last month, requiring camps to conduct daily health screenings for staffers and campers and advising camps to require masks in indoor settings. It also encouraged masks outside when social distancing isn’t possible. Kids and unvaccinated staffers must show a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arriving at an overnight camp. Everyone is required to undergo testing again within 3-6 days. New Jersey is also asking camp participants and staffers to voluntarily quarantine before coming to camp.