Dems bash Blakeman for executive order on making masks optional in schools

Robert Pelaez
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman received backlash from Democratic officials throughout New York for his executive order that made mask-wearing optional in school districts. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Blakeman)

Democratic officials throughout New York, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, criticized Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman’s executive order that permits school districts to choose whether or not they want to enforce a mask mandate for their students.

The order, signed by Blakeman on Thursday, goes against Hochul’s mandate, which went into effect on Aug. 27. The mandate requires students to wear masks while in school.

Blakeman, in a subsequent statement, touted the importance of providing “personal decision-making to families and normalcy to students.”

“Thankfully, children aren’t being hospitalized nor facing serious illness despite the rise in cases. If families want masks, we support them,” Blakeman said. “And if they don’t, we must support them as well.”

Blakeman’s order includes directing the county’s Office of Emergency Management to make masks available for every public and private school throughout Nassau for teachers, janitors, staff and administration so schools will not have to close.

Hochul, during a Thursday press conference in New York City, called Blakeman’s executive order an attempt “to assert authority with respect to what has already been declared a public health emergency.” 

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state’s and Nassau’s Democratic Party said Blakeman’s order will likely result in more school districts closing their doors for in-person instruction with the growing number of coronavirus cases on Long Island. Jacobs said the executive order is an example of how “elections have consequences.”

“Bruce Blakeman’s refusal to comply with the law mandating that masks be worn in schools gravely endangers children, teachers, and our population’s most vulnerable,” Jacobs said in a statement. “This politically motivated directive will make school closures more likely, leaving middle and working-class families unable to work or require them to pay for child care. School mask mandates must end, but now is certainly not the time.”

Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills), Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti and six other Democratic officials throughout Long Island also criticized Blakeman’s executive order that goes against the state mask mandate in a joint statement Friday.

Officials reflected on the 3,400 Nassau County residents that have died as a result of the coronavirus, noted the increase in pediatric hospitalizations and said going against Hochul’s order “would be the height of irresponsibility.”

“We are confident the school districts of Nassau County will continue acting responsibly in the coming days, as they had no input in the County Executive’s actions,” the officials said. “For the sake of our children, teachers, and school personnel, County Executive Blakeman must immediately rescind his irresponsible and clearly unlawful executive order.”

Blakeman’s order did gain the support of Nassau County Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein, according to Newsday.

Eisenstein supported the decision to leave the decision of masking students up to each school district and noted questions as to masks effectiveness against the omicron variant.

“You are starting to see with omicron there are questions of what level of masking is better than other levels,” Eisenstein told Newsday. “So we are waiting for more clear science.”

Efforts to reach Eisenstein for further comment were unavailing.

Hochul said she and newly elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams both believe students should be physically attending school, but stressed the need to do so safely.

“People who have more experience in county government would know that state government, state laws prevail,” Hochul said. There’s also the issue of the state Education Department, which has direct control over the funding of schools. I hope I don’t need to say anything more on that topic.”

Betty A. Rosa, the commissioner of the state’s Education Department, released a statement saying that the department anticipates local school boards will defer to state guidance rather than the county’s order.

“Counties do not have the legal authority to require boards of education to vote on specific issues,” Rosa said in a statement. “School officers take an oath to obey all legal requirements. The State Education Department expects school boards will follow all legal requirements, including the face-covering regulation.”

Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, said the 600,000-member union supports Hochul’s mask-wearing mandate.

“It’s unbelievable that nearly two years into the pandemic we have to debate the critical importance of mask wearing as part of a layered COVID-19 mitigation strategy in schools,” Pallotta said in a statement. “Particularly given the current spike in cases, now is not the time to do away with mask wearing in schools. Public health experts have been unequivocally clear that masks are an important part of the strategies designed to keep students, educators and our communities safe. And the governor was clear this afternoon that state law prevails in this matter. We continue to support the state’s mask guidance for schools and call on all districts to continue following these guidelines.”

Garuav Passi, acting superintendent for the Manhasset School District, said Rosa told informed school district officials throughout the state that the mask mandate must be enforced, much to the ire of some parents in attendance.

“The Commissioner of Education from the state of New York has told us that we do not have an option, we must enforce the mask mandate,” Passi said during a public meeting Thursday night. “Masks are required in our schools and it’s our intention to enforce the mask mandate by asking students to wear their masks, respectfully. If they don’t, then they are not in compliance with the school rule.”

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