May 19, 2022

Covid Live Updates: New York City Students Return to Class Without Masks

Schoolchildren from the Upper East Side to East New York will turn up to classrooms on Monday morning with nothing on their faces — except, perhaps, the remnants of a milk mustache.

In other words: Masks are now optional for public school children in New York City from kindergarten on up.

It is a day some have yearned for and others think has come too soon, triggered by the decision by Mayor Eric Adams to lift the mask mandate in New York City schools. The move came hours after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she would lift the statewide mandate.

The New York City Department of Education said it will continue to require daily health screenings and that students returning from suspected coronavirus infections must wear masks for several days. In addition, the Department of Education strongly recommends that students or staff exposed to the virus wear face coverings, although it does not require them to do so.

Since the Omicron surge has been ebbing, pandemic restrictions have been lifted in many states, including New York, allowing local officials to make their own determinations on masks. In Connecticut, the decision was turned over to localities late last month, while in New Jersey, rules similar to New York’s also go into effect on Monday.

Like so many virus restriction rollbacks, this one has been met with an anxious mix of excitement, hope and concern.

While New York City has a vaccination rate that is above the national figure, rates among children have continued to lag, and are not consistent across schools.

A recent study from the New York State Department of Health found that, as with adults, most children hospitalized for or with Covid-19 were unvaccinated. The report also found that children ages 4 and younger, who are ineligible for coronavirus vaccines, were overrepresented among all pediatric hospitalizations. Masks will continue to be required for children ages 2 to 4 in kindergarten and preschool classrooms.

The United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City public school educators, said on Friday that it supported the move to a system where masks are optional. President Michael Mulgrew called it “the responsible, thoughtful way to make our next transition.”

Even so, the union stressed the importance of maintaining a robust in-school and take-home testing program to ensure that the city, with more than one million children in its public schools, remained “on the right path.”

Some parents, public health experts, and local officials have said that it is too early to ease restrictions, and some have urged children and teachers to continue to wear masks.

With the statewide mandate gone, some districts began going maskless as early as last week.

The complicated mixture of emotions was on display at the Cynthia Jenkins Elementary School in the Springfield Gardens neighborhood of Queens, where about 11 percent of the school’s students are fully vaccinated.

Natalie Charles, the mother of a second-grader, Ethan Scarlett, said that she was not entirely comfortable with dropping masks. “This is what I told him, you have to keep the mask on,” she said, adding that her entire family was vaccinated.

Ms. Charles wondered why the mask mandate was ending while schools were still testing students. Those contradictory signals helped lead to her decision, she said.

A slightly shy Ethan, 7, just nodded while masked, agreeing with his mother.

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