With some classes already in session and the rest set to begin in the coming weeks, the New York State Department of Health (the “DOH”) announced a mask mandate for both private and public schools. The mandate, issued on August 27, was made official by the DOH Commissioner later that day. Under the mandate, students, faculty and staff are required to wear masks while in school buildings. This requirement applies to all schools, grades pre-K through 12th grade, and to all students over the age of 2 years old. This article will discuss the reasoning for the mandate and what schools can do to comply accordingly.
NY Governor’s Influence
On August 24, when New York Governor Kathy Hochul was sworn into office, she stated that she will be directing the DOH to mandate masks in schools. Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases as a result of the Delta variant, Gov. Hochul not only directed the mask mandate, but also a “Back to School” COVID testing program that would serve to make COVID testing accessible to students, faculty, and staff. Further, Gov. Hochul also stated that her office will be developing a vaccination policy for all school personnel, with the current option of weekly testing for those who chose not to get the vaccine.
Since many school-aged children are ineligible for any COVID-19 vaccine at the moment, they have the potential to carry the virus even if they are asymptomatic. School settings are also very vulnerable to community spread due to high populations and difficulty with the ability to social distance. The Commissioner’s determination (which can be found here) cited studies from a U.S. ship, Thailand, and China showing the effectiveness of mask wearing.
Although New York’s current COVID infection rate remains far below numbers from last year, the growing concern over the Delta variant has motivated the DOH to mandate masks in schools. Many schools across the state currently have optional mask policies which will need to be modified. Regardless of whether classes have begun or will be beginning shortly, schools will need to evaluate their current masking policy for compliance with the mandate and ensure that teachers and staff are properly trained to enforce the mask mandate among the students. Noncompliance may subject schools to a fine of up to $1,000 per violation.