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N.Y. Teachers Seek Mask Mandate For Classrooms

Image by Alexandra Koch from Pixabay

Schools in New York are busy finalizing plans to partially reopen in a few weeks, and many colleges and universities have already begun classes. But those who work at the schools, including teachers and professors, say guidelines for when to wear masks need to be more comprehensive, to help prevent spread of the coronavirus.

The state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, asking him to revise the policy on masks in schools to make them mandatory while in the classroom.

“We are calling on the department of health to update its school reopening guidance,” said Andy Pallotta, the union’s president, “to make it crystal clear that masks must be worn at all times on school grounds in districts where school buildings are reopening.”

In the spring, Cuomo issued an executive order that requires masks to be worn by adults and most children while out in public. But schools are not included in that. Instead, the health department mandates the use of masks in schools when six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. Masks are strongly recommended at all other times, including in the classroom, but they are not mandatory once the student is sitting down at a socially distanced desk.

As a result, the teachers union said, schools have adopted “disparate” mask policies that have left teachers and some parents uneasy. For example, in the Watkins Glen school district in the Southern Tier, masks will be mandatory in hallways, but not in classrooms. School districts in Batavia, in Western New York, Naples, in the Finger Lakes, and Argyle, in the Capital Region, have adopted similar policies.

Diane Vanyo, president of the Argyle teachers association, said if students don’t have masks in the classrooms, teachers will be limited in their interaction with them, and that could affect learning.

“We can’t move around and help them on an individual basis,” said Vanyo who said teachers won’t be able to access their smart boards or other technologies used to make lessens more engaging.

“If a teacher is lecturing from the corner of a classroom behind a Plexiglas shield, we cannot meet that end,” she said.

She also said teachers could also inadvertently become spreaders of the virus, as they shuttle from classroom to classroom.

NYSUT, in its letter to the health commissioner, said that requiring temperature screenings and asking about possible COVID-19 symptoms is not enough. Those checks don’t find asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases where the person could be unknowingly spreading the disease. They said face coverings offer the only secure protection.

Masks would not need to be worn during meals and during brief scheduled break periods during the day.

The states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, as well as New York City, all require masks at all times in their schools.

Fred Kowal, the head of United University Professions, the union representing college professors and other faculty in the State University of New York, said he’d like to see stricter masks rules in that system, too.

“Some of the campuses are saying that as long as you maintain a six foot distance, you don’t have to wear a mask,” Kowal said. “We don’t think that’s safe.”

Cuomo said he wants to leave the mask rules as they are. He said there are “major differences” among school districts in the state, and flexibility is needed.

“The local school district, they don’t need me to say, in New York City, when the children should wear a mask or in Buffalo or on Long Island,” Cuomo said. “You don’t need a state rule to do something in your school district.”

But Cuomo said if teachers don’t feel safe, then they should tell their school administrators that they are not returning to teach this year without a mandatory mask rule in place.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.