Judge’s stay on previous masking verdict leaves school districts in a frenzy

Robert Pelaez
School districts throughout Long Island will be monitoring what happens in the state appellate court in Brooklyn on Friday in regards to mask mandates in classrooms. (Photo courtesy of metrocreativeconnection.com)

After a Nassau County justice overturned Gov. Kathy Hochul’s statewide mask mandate on Monday, Appellate Judge Robert J. Miller “stayed,” or suspended, that decision, requiring students to once again wear protective face coverings in school.

Judge Thomas Rademaker of State Supreme Court in Nassau County said on Monday that Hochul’s mask mandate violated the state Constitution, which resulted in a handful of school districts on Long Island making mask-wearing optional for students and staff on Tuesday. Following Rademaker’s verdict, Hochul expressed her strong opposition to the decision and said, “we believe this will be settled very shortly.”

The next day, Miller’s verdict forced the school districts that chose to make mask-wearing optional to go back to following Hochul’s guidelines. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the state Appellate Court in Brooklyn.

After the decision to suspend Rademaker’s decision, Hochul touted the need to prioritize the health and well-being of all New Yorkers and expressed her gratitude for those in state government who continue to aid her in that mission.

“I commend the Attorney General for her defense of the health and safety of New Yorkers, and applaud the Appellate Division, Second Department for siding with common sense and granting an interim stay to keep the state’s important masking regulations in place,” Hochul said. “We will not stop fighting to protect New Yorkers, and we are confident we will continue to prevail.”

Andy Pallotta, president of the state’s United Teachers organization, also supported the stay but asked state health officials to provide guidance to students, parents, teachers and staff as to when masking mandates can be relaxed so that they may have some certainty in their lives.

“Public health experts have been clear that masks are an important part of the strategies designed to keep students, educators and our communities safe,” Pallotta said Tuesday. “In the meantime, we’re looking to state health officials to set a clear off-ramp for when mask requirements in schools can be relaxed so students, families and educators have some certainty that there is light at the end of this long tunnel.”

Tim Dolan, interim superintendent of the North Shore school district,  which temporarily allowed mask-wearing to be optional, said school districts being the centerpiece of political controversy is “terribly disappointing.”

“The Board and I will continue to work with our legal counsel to find ways to navigate into the future,” Dolan said in a statement Tuesday. “This is a complex legal issue, and we need to make every effort to protect the rights of all and deny the rights of none. That is a very tough balancing act, but we must find a way to do so. We will.”

Allison Brown, the superintendent of the Roslyn school district, announced that masks would be optional for students and staff on Monday, but acknowledged that the judge’s decision could be suspended. 

Confusion arose after the decision at the Manhasset Secondary School on Tuesday, according to Newsday, when a group of unmasked students were reportedly denied entry to the building. School officials told Newsday that the unmasked students were allowed to stay in the library for remote learning.

“I’ve been here since 7:30 in the freezing cold,” 16-year-old Tina Bonati told Newsday. “I’ve missed like four or five periods of school. … I feel extremely annoyed. I think that my rights to education should not be denied because of an unconstitutional act.”

Gaurav Passi, the acting superintendent in Manhasset, in a letter to the community Tuesday, said the confusion was “understandable” and a “vast majority of students” abided by the district’s decision to follow the state guidelines.

“We share the community’s frustration with the conflicting messages from governing authorities and their legal counsel,” Passi said in the letter.

Sewanhaka Central High School District Superintendent James Grossane said the district would continue to enforce the mandate, acknowledging the strains it has taken on all of the district stakeholders.

“Schools must continue to follow the massive mandates that have been in place for all students and staff since the beginning of the school year,” Grossane said Tuesday. “We all know that these last 22 months have been very difficult and stressful for our entire school community. Please know we are here to support you and stand ready to assist in any way we can to understand that we as a board and as an administration must comply with the laws that are in effect, that is the oath we take every year.”

Prior to the stay, the Port Washington school district released a statement saying it would also abide by the state’s mask mandate until a final decision was made.

“We are anxiously waiting to see the next steps by the state,” the statement said. “Until an official announcement has been made whether masks will be optional and/or it plays out in the courts, the district must continue to abide by the mask mandate currently in place.”

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman implored Hochul to “stop disrespecting the rights of students and parents” and to revoke the mask mandate for schools and indoor settings, which is different from the school mandate and is set to expire on Feb. 1.

“Mask decisions should be made by families and school boards who have their finger on the pulse of their communities, not Albany politicians,” Blakeman said in a statement Tuesday. “Nassau is normal again, and our county will continue to lead the way as an example for the rest of the state to follow.”

Blakeman, a Republican, received backlash from Democratic officials throughout the state for an executive order he signed several weeks ago aimed at providing school districts with a choice to enforce mask mandates or not.

Hochul said local governments do not have the power to override state mandates on education and 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.”

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