Westchester schools divided: New York’s mask mandate fight gives educators, students whiplash


Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

By Sarah Gayden and Fran Havard

North Salem Central School District Superintendent Ken Freeston said Tuesday that masks were still required within North Salem schools, despite a New York State Supreme Court judge's ruling Monday that the mask mandate was unenforceable.

“Based on the Attorney General’s filing of the Notice of Appeal, and the directive issued by the Commissioner of Education last evening, the use of masks inside school buildings remains mandatory and not optional at this point in time,” Freeston wrote in an email sent to parents, teachers and staff. The letter was sent just 21 minutes before the start of the school day for North Salem Middle School/High School. Many students in grades 6 - 12 boarded buses Tuesday morning unaware of what the latest requirements would be when they walked into school. 

Following the ruling late Monday, a flurry of back-and-forth communications from state leaders left families and educators across the state confused about whether masks would still be required. The state Commissioner of Education said in a statement issued to schools Monday night, “schools must continue to follow the mask rule,” saying it was expected that the Department of Health would appeal the Supreme Court decision. The filing of an appeal would “result in an automatic stay that will unambiguously restore the mask rule until such time as an appellate court issues a further ruling,” the Department said.

Freeston wrote in an email to the North Salem Post, "our decision to require masks is based solely on the directive from the State education department. We are advised by legal counsel that we must follow that directive."

Shortly before 11:00 p.m. Monday night, the Attorney General did file a notice of appeal.

By the time school began Tuesday, several area school districts had notified their faculties and families of new guidance. Ossining, Harrison, Katonah-Lewisboro Schools all removed mandatory mask wearing policies based on the supreme court’s initial ruling.

Ossining superintendent Dr. Raymond Sanchez wrote to families, “based on the facts at this time, masks may continue to be worn in school; however, they are not required. This situation will continue to evolve and could change as early as this morning.” The district advocated for wearing masks based on guidance from the CDC and the Department of Health.

By Tuesday afternoon, an appellate court judge granted a stay, meaning the mask mandate remains in place state-wide pending the appeal. Districts that had made mask wearing optional Tuesday must revert to mandatory usage beginning Wednesday, until a final judgment is made.

Some families expressed weariness and frustration at the continued mask mandate. Jacquelyn Magnotta, a North Salem Central School District parent of two elementary-aged children, told the North Salem Post that she emailed district administrators several times today questioning why the mask mandate was still in place. Magnotta said her inquiries went unanswered. “Just respond to me, “Magnotta said. “They can prove me wrong and I can shut my mouth.” Magnotta questioned the role masks play in preventing the spread of COVID-19, saying, “unless you are wearing a fitted N95 mask, nothing else matters.”

The appellate court hearing on the appeal is scheduled for Friday, January 28 at 10:00 a.m.

This story has been updated.

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