ALBANY — New York State United Teachers — joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, local educators and others — called Thursday on the state to update Department of Health school reopening guidelines to make the wearing of masks mandatory at all time 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 reads. “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.”
In a press release, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta echoed those sentiments.
“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,” Pallotta said in the release. “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.”
According to the release, a recent poll of NYSUT members showed that 81% 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.
“The science is clear that masks are among the most effective ways we can reduce the spread of this virus,” Dr. Jana Shaw, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, said in the release. “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.”
The union has stated 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.”