Editorial: Mask-wearing policy for students must be clarified

Parents of school-age children were surely frustrated this week by the confusing back and forth from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on exactly what the policy is for schools as it relates to mask wearing.

As COVID-19 infection rates have fallen sharply, and as signs requiring that masks be worn at businesses and institutions are coming down, the governor’s fumble on mask wearing policies for school districts was a real blunder.

On Monday, after days of mass confusion about what the policy is or isn’t, Mr. Cuomo tried to clear things up. Local school districts, he said, will be given individual discretion on mask policy — but only as it relates to outdoor activities.

“They were not comfortable with [lifting the] indoor mask requirement,” the governor said, pinning his decision on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 2020-21 school year has been, to put it mildly, extraordinarily challenging for students and their families. What school districts needed from the governor’s office was clear messaging on policy they should follow, which, to our mind, should have given them full discretion and not the partial version the governor came out with Monday.

It’s clear to us and to a range of medical experts that infection rates in the state have fallen to such a point that, come the new school year in September, mask wearing should no longer be required, but should instead be something individual students and their families decide on their own.

If the infection rates in New York State remain low, that should be the policy directive from the CDC. The policy could be summed up this way: On masks, do what is comfortable.

Some churches on the North Fork have told their parishioners mask wearing is now an individual choice. Wear a mask at services if you want; if you have been fully vaccinated, you don’t have to. It’s your call.

This is the policy our school districts will hopefully be able to adopt for the coming school year, especially as more children ages 12 and older become vaccinated.

The confusion on indoor mask wearing policy began when state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker wrote in a letter to the CDC that the state could fully relax mask mandates as of June 7. That was big news.

In his letter, Dr. Zucker said masks worn indoors at camps and schools would be “strongly encouraged but not required for students, campers and staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated.”

That seemed clear and thoroughly welcome news. But Monday’s“whiplash-inducing news” from the governor’s office turned Dr. Zucker’s letter to the CDC on its head.

Confusion spread quickly that morning, with at least three Long Island school districts giving students and staff the option of not wearing face masks, Newsday reported. The Patchogue-Medford district said early Monday that vaccinated students and staff had the option of not wearing masks at all.

By that afternoon, however, one school district, Newsday reported, said it would return to the indoor mask mandate, while complaining “of the whip-lashing directives from the state …”

As the next school year approaches, our school districts need crystal clear and consistent indoor masking policies for students to follow.

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