New York state appellate court rules masks stay on pending outcome of appeal

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In a fast-moving policy debacle determined and turned over by mandates, court filings, and appeals, schools throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties worked hard to keep up with the state of mask mandates following a clash of Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman and New York state Gov. Kathy Hochul.

As it stands, the New York state appellate court has ruled that until a decision is made on the case challenging the statewide school mask mandate, the original mandate made by Hochul will be stayed.

The following school districts sent out correspondence to parents late Monday evening, Jan. 24, informing them that following a court decision, masks would be optional the following school day, only to have to rescind their policy following the appellate court’s judgment:

Bay Shore

West Islip

East Islip

Islip

Sayville

Bayport-Blue Point

Connetquot

The letters confirmed the decision made in Nassau County’s Supreme Court by Judge Thomas Rademaker, who ruled earlier that afternoon that the state’s health commissioner lacked legal authority to issue the Dec. 10 mask-wearing regulation.

Deemed unlawful, Rademaker said the mandate was “therefore void and unenforceable.”

The court cited the state legislature’s decision to rein in the emergency powers granted on the executive branch during the pandemic.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has filed a notice to appeal the ruling.

“My responsibility as Governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. We strongly disagree with this ruling, and we are pursuing every option to reverse this immediately,” said Hochul.

Under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state had initially instituted a mask mandate in April 2020 that ended in June 2021 for those who were vaccinated; Hochul announced in mid-December that it would go back into effect.

The New York State Education Department released a statement Tuesday that said, “The Governor and State DOH have filed a Notice of Appeal and are seeking confirmation that the court’s order is stayed. While these legal steps occur, it is NYSED’s position that schools should continue to follow the mask rule.”

The case was taken to court following Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman’s issuance of a controversial executive order on Jan. 6 that gave individual public school districts the power to make universal masking optional.

Blakeman had actually signed three executive orders that ruled out a mask mandate for public school children, county workers, and indoor places or businesses.

Hochul, in a statement, called the executive order “unlawful” and added, “people who have more experience in county government would know that state government, state laws, prevail. The state Education Department has direct control over funding of schools.”

School board meetings since the end of the 2020-2021 school year and the summer preceding the 2021-2022 school year have been rife with strong proponents of both mandatory and optional mask-wearing in the school district.

Letters from our local districts have cautioned that the mask-optional update would likely change in the coming days as districts have been forewarned of the Department of Education mandating masks following the court’s decision.

Facebook on Tuesday morning was flooded with local community members debating the change in mask-mandating policy, with some celebrating and some denigrating the decision.

Amanda Ascher of East Islip, who has two sons in the district and has long advocated for optional masking, said, “As parents who have been fighting for local control and parental choice, we are thrilled that the NYS Supreme Court has ruled on the unconstitutionality of the mask mandate. East Islip has done a good job at giving parents a voice on both sides of the issue. A majority of parents were all hoping to go mask optional… We have brought the science about the ineffectiveness of masks, the biological harm masking causes such as reducing the blood oxygen levels, increased heart rate, hypoxia, hypercapnia, and its negative effects on the immune system.”

Conversely, Marie Neilon of Bayport, who has a daughter in the Bayport-Blue Point School District, supports mandatory masking, “The actions of Bayport-Blue Point Board of Education and superintendent Dr. Hearney, following the NYS Supreme Court decision, were deeply disappointing. The district leadership stood in open defiance of NYS Department of Education’s instruction to continue enforcing universal masking while the decision was appealed in appellate court and advised parents that masking was now optional… Kids do get seriously ill from Omicron, and MIS C is an even greater risk from Omicron than it was from Delta… According to the CDC, Black children are five times likelier than white children to be hospitalized with COVID, and Hispanic children are eight times likelier… We should limit transmission of COVID in schools using a multi-layered approach, including masks. Surgical masks, N95s and KN-95s are safe and effective tools to decrease transmission and they work best when worn universally.”

The state mandate from Hochul was previously in effect until Feb. 15 and made after the heavily spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Repercussions for not following the now defunct mandate may be carried out in the distribution of state funding to school districts, but the Governor’s office has not made any official statement confirming this penalty. 

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