A Nassau County judge’s ruling on a statewide mask mandate briefly sent school districts scrambling on Tuesday, January 25, but East End districts, unlike some counterparts to the west, are maintaining Governor Kathy Hochul’s order following an appeal of the decision submitted that same day.
Attorney General Letitia James filed the appeal after State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker issued his decision late Monday, deeming the state order requiring a mask mandate unconstitutional and unenforceable.
An appellate court on Tuesday afternoon granted a stay, meaning that the mandate will remain in effect until at least January 28, when the case will be heard in the court.
“Surely [State Commissioner of Health Mary Bassett] has the authority to implement and apply rules concerning public health. However, nowhere in the public health law is the commissioner bestowed with the authority to make a law,” the judge wrote. “To be clear, this court does not intend this decision in any way to question or otherwise opine on the efficacy, need or requirement of masks as a means or tool in dealing with the COVID-19 virus. This court decides only the issues of whether the subject rule was properly enacted, and if so, whether same can be enforced.”
His decision comes amid a record-breaking omicron variant surge. Although COVID-19 case numbers are starting to decline, daily positives remain far higher than at the start of the surge in early December, and hospitalizations remain elevated to a point beyond any since May 2020, with 10,000 coronavirus patients being treated statewide.
In December, the governor renewed the mask mandate for all indoor public places, like schools and nursing homes and on public transit, throughout the state. The State Department of Health then extended the mandate an additional two weeks, to expire next Tuesday, February 1.
“My responsibility as governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives,” Hochul said in a statement following Rademaker’s verdict. “We strongly disagree with this ruling, and we are pursuing every option to reverse this immediately.”
While the judgment would overturn the statewide mandate for masks in schools and public places, it would not reverse local mandates.
But on Monday night and Tuesday morning, some districts, like North Merrick, East Meadow, Massapequa, Lindenhurst, Harborfields, South Huntington, Smithtown, Sachem, West Islip, Sayville, Bayport-Blue Point and several others, were already sending out letters to parents saying masks are now optional.
Hampton Bays, East Quogue, Westhampton Beach, Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Springs school districts all confirmed Monday that their mask mandates remain in effect, citing the immediate appeal at 12:35 a.m. Tuesday morning.
The call for reexamination “resulted in an automatic stay that will ‘unambiguously restore the mask rule until such time as an appellate court issues a further ruling,’” Springs Superintendent Debra Winter said in an email to parents Tuesday morning. “School counsel has advised that we should anticipate that a stay of the court’s decision will be in effect, which shall have the effect of maintaining the status quo, including the mandatory use of face coverings, throughout the period of an appeal by the state. Therefore, the universal masking protocols that were recommended to and approved by our Board of Education this summer will remain in effect while this is sorted out.”
Bridgehampton Superintendent Mary Kelly issued a similar statement to the school community on Tuesday. East Quogue Superintendent Robert Long Jr. said the district was advised by the State Education Department that the requirements remained unchanged for Tuesday, and that parents and guardians would be updated as soon as new information becomes available.
“[The State Education Department] has directed all schools to continue following the mask requirement,” Westhampton Beach Superintendent Carolyn Probst said. “Until directed otherwise, all students and staff are required to wear masks in our schools.”
One fine body…