ALBANY, N.Y. Aug. 27, 2020 —New York State United Teachers — joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, local educators and others — today called on the state to update Department of Health school reopening guidelines to make mandatory the wearing of masks at all times indoors 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 states. “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.”
The full letter can be read here; it is also available below.
“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,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “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.”
“We are still fighting a global pandemic, and masks are key to protecting others around us,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “That is why they must be central to reopening schools. It’s part of creating confidence in parents, students and school staff by utilizing all the appropriate public health safeguards to prevent the spread of virus in schools. This is not a question of either/or — masks or social distancing when inside schools. To protect the health and safety of everyone in the school community, it’s both/and until the risks from the coronavirus are contained.”
“While our district has adopted a ‘masks on the move’ policy, such as when students are in the hallways, in the classroom, masks will not be required,” said Diane Vanyo, president of the Argyle Teachers Association in the Capital Region. “We have raised numerous concerns with the district about this policy, which we fear will lead to students and teachers coming in and out of confined rooms where masks have not been worn all day. But with no movement on the local level, state action is exactly what we need to ensure we have the safest environment possible for our students and for our staff.”
“Simply put, making it mandatory that masks be worn throughout the school day would make me feel all the more confident that sending my children back to their classrooms is a safe option,” said Brandon Johnson, a parent of a fifth grader and eighth grader and an educator in Horseheads in the Southern Tier. “As a parent, I don’t feel the district has taken adequate steps to address this concern. It’s time the state stepped in and made this policy simple for every district statewide.”
“The science is clear that masks are among the most effective ways we can reduce the spread of this virus,” said Dr. Jana Shaw, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse. “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.”
“Masks throughout the school day with social distancing in the classrooms is not only appropriate based on the available science, but it is the best way to protect students, teachers and staff during this pandemic,” said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine for Northwell Health on Long Island.
As NYSUT has said throughout the school reopening process this summer, health and safety must be at the forefront. A recent poll of NYSUT members showed that 81 percent 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.
NYSUT has been clear 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.”
Letter to Commissioner Zucker
August 27, 2020
Dr. Howard Zucker, Commissioner
New York State Department of Health
Empire State Plaza,
Albany, NY 12237
Dear Commissioner Zucker,
It’s an understatement to say that we’re writing at a difficult time for our state and nation. As we watch the coronavirus pandemic spike in other states, we’re thankful for the steps that Gov. Cuomo and the Department of Health have taken in New York to keep the infection rate under control.
Those steps are the reason why we’re writing. New York State has led the way in public awareness of the use of masks as a way to help reduce the spread of this virus, and we were initially heartened to see school reopening guidance from DOH that mandated the use of masks when social distancing cannot be maintained and strongly recommended the use of masks at all times.
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. In reviewing individual reopening plans with educators in the field, it’s clear that numerous plans do not go far enough in their mask policies to ensure the safety of students and educators.
For example, in Watkins Glen in the Southern Tier the policy is masks will be mandatory only when students are moving or when social distancing can’t be maintained, such as passing in the hallways. But masks are not mandatory during classroom instruction, which has left local educators with little confidence in the safety of a plan that calls for them to rotate between rooms in which no masks have been in use. This issue related to no masks during instruction has similarly cropped up in Argyle in the Capital Region, and in Batavia and Naples in the Finger Lakes. The same goes for Cairo-Durham in the Hudson Valley, where an added layer of confusion reigns because of differing communication among buildings about what the requirements in the local reopening plan actually are. And at Orleans/Niagara BOCES in Western New York what’s written in the local reopening plan differs from the communication staff has received from administration about when masks are and are not necessary, creating more confusion.
The list goes on.
Simply put, we believe DOH can address these issues by changing its guidance to mandate statewide that masks be worn at all times indoors, just as six feet of social distancing is mandatory statewide. We understand that there are some students who may need a medical accommodation because they can’t wear a mask at all times, just as removing a mask to eat or to take a designated mask break is appropriate. But mandating the use of masks at all other times should be a non-negotiable condition of reopening a school building.
The science shows that the current required screenings for temperature and symptoms are not wholly sufficient in capturing potential sources of contagion. It has become clear that certain individuals can be infectious but asymptomatic or presymptomatic, meaning they have the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms, such as a dry cough, fatigue or a fever. Published online in June, a review of the current scientific literature regarding COVID-19, which was paid for by the World Health Organization, found that wearing face masks protects people (both healthcare workers and the general public) against infection by the coronavirus. Considering this, as well as the novel nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is crucial that we are as protective as possible.
New York should heed this science for school reopening, just as others are. In guidance released last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal face covering use, in addition to physical distancing and other strategies to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. AAP President Sally Goza stated that cloth face coverings “should be part of (children’s) new normal.” In reaction to the AAP guidance update last week, the State of Pennsylvania updated its school reopening guidance to require that masks be worn at all times during the school day, and we believe New York should do the same.
As Gov. Cuomo has said, schools can’t reopen without students and educators. At this stage in the process, any step that will help the parents who would send their children to school and teachers who will staff schools feel more confident in their district’s reopening plans merits not just serious consideration, but immediate action.
We thank you for your attention to this matter and await additional guidance.
Andy Pallotta, President
New York State United Teachers
CC: Jim Malatras, State University of New York; Dan Fuller, Office of the Governor; Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
New York State United Teachers is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care. NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.