By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
RAVENA-COEYMANS-SELKIRK — The statewide school mask mandate was lifted effective Wednesday, but other COVID-19 protocols remain in place, district officials said Monday.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced at a press briefing Sunday that the statewide school mask mandate would be lifted beginning March 2.
After analyzing the data statewide and globally, and handing out millions of COVID-19 test kits in schools before winter break, the decision was made to lift the requirement in schools statewide, Hochul said.
“This means that starting this Wednesday, March 2, students, staff and visitors will no longer be required to wear face coverings or masks in any of our school buildings or on our school buses,” Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk District Superintendent Dr. Brian Bailey said in a letter to families Sunday.
Masks to protect against the COVID-19 virus remain optional in all schools.
“All students, staff and visitors may continue to wear a mask if they prefer to,” Bailey said Sunday. “Our expectation is that our RCS school community will foster a learning environment where each individual’s masking choice is respected once the mandate is lifted.”
Other COVID-19 protocols remain in effect at RCS schools, Bailey said, including social distancing in classrooms and during lunch, hand hygiene, cleaning of frequent-touch surfaces and increased fresh air and filtration in classrooms.
Quarantine and isolation protocols also remain in place, Bailey said, for individuals who test positive for the virus.
Coeymans Town Supervisor George McHugh welcomed the lifting of the school mandate but said it should have been done when the mandate on businesses and other indoor spaces was lifted several weeks ago.
“I am glad to see that Gov. Hochul has finally lifted the mask mandate for our schools and children,” McHugh said. “I believe in following the science and listening to our medical professionals, and I also believe that masks and vaccinations are certainly part of the solution to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I do feel that when the mask mandate was lifted for New Yorkers on Feb. 10, this should have included our schools, our teachers and our children. Teachers and students that want to continue to wear a mask are certainly able to do so, but it should be a personal choice rather than a government mandate.”
Albany County Legislator Zachary Collins, R-37, who represents Coeymans at the county level, said he has pushed for the school mandate to be removed.
“On Feb. 22, I presented the county Legislature with a proclamation asking Gov. Hochul to lift the school mask mandate for our children after she lifted the statewide mandate,” Collins said. “The lifting of the school mandate is something that should have been done when the statewide mandate was lifted. My son is able to attend birthday parties and other forms of entertainment with his friends during afterschool or on the weekends, but must wear a mask in school on Monday. Please understand that my stance is not against taking precautionary measures against COVID. If parents want their children to wear a mask, so be it. My stance is to issue common-sense legislation and when you lift a statewide mandate, lift it for everyone. Our parents, our teachers and our children have been thrown into a fight against each other over the government’s handling of mandates connected with this virus. It is a tough situation for all and I feel for everyone involved.”
Hochul’s decision to lift the statewide mandate came two days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance stating that indoor masking is not necessary for most individuals in counties with low or medium transmission rates of the virus. The new guidance applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
“Based on the indications that they look at, infection rates as well as admissions, they came up with a calculation of what constitutes a low, medium or high community transmission level, and 75% of the population right now lives in an area that is considered low or medium risk,” Hochul said. “That is very positive.”
The CDC’s guidance for low and medium risk areas applies to schools as well, the governor added.
“Given the decline in our rates, our hospitalization, strong vaccination rates and CDC guidance, the day has come — today we are announcing that we will be lifting the statewide mask requirement in schools, and that will be effective this Wednesday, March 2,” Hochul said Sunday.
Students returned to the classroom Monday following a week-long winter break. The requirement was lifted Wednesday to give a couple of extra days for testing, particularly for students, families and staff who returned to the district from vacations outside their home area, and to finalize the guidelines.
While the statewide mandate is being lifted, counties will still have the option to impose a mask mandate in schools if community transmission rates are high, Hochul said.
“We will lift the statewide requirement based on all the data I have just outlined, however there are some counties in the state of New York where there is a higher rate of transmission. We will allow them the flexibility to determine what is best for their county,” Hochul said. “We would encourage them to take a look at this and follow the CDC, however this will no longer be a mandate.”
Families will also have the option to make their own decisions on masking their children, Hochul said, adding that there should be no judgments or harassment of any families or school staff for their personal decisions with regard to masking.