Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman signed executive orders on Jan. 6 directing local boards of education to vote this month on whether their districts should mandate mask use, while also lifting the mask mandate for all county agencies.
Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District officials said they were unsure of the legality of Blakeman’s action. Superintendent Mike Harrington said that he and the superintendents of the North Bellmore School District, Bellmore Public Schools, the North Merrick Union Free School District and the Merrick Union Free School District were in touch and working with their legal counsels to interpret the executive order.
Some community members, however, were quick to voice their support for Blakeman’s decision. Carmella Ciancarelli, a mother of three boys in the North Bellmore district, wrote in an email to the Herald, “I support Bruce Blakeman allowing local control again and advocating for mask choice. Vaccines and boosters are available for all those in a K-12 building. If extra protection is still wanted by those individuals, they have the right to wear extra protection like an N95 mask, as Blakeman said he would make sure was available for them.”
The orders read in part, “[G]iven the historical data on Covid-19 and the ongoing debate over whether masks are more harmful than beneficial to children and to school environments in general, we should protect the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision whether their children should wear masks in school.”
School boards, the orders continue, must vote “to determine whether or not parents and children should be granted the constitutional right to reject mask mandates while in the classroom.”
The orders further state, “More than half of all states in the nation have no set policy on masking at educational institutions, leaving the decision up to local governments to decide when and how to enforce mask mandates.”
State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa issued a statement to local school districts in reaction to Blakeman’s orders, writing, “Counties are required to enforce school masking regulations. … Counties do not have the legal authority to require boards of education to vote on specific issues. School officers take an oath to obey all legal requirements. The State Education Department expects school boards will follow all legal requirements, including the face-covering regulation.”
William Biamonte, chief of staff of the County Legislature’s Democratic minority, said, “When ideology trumps science and politics are prioritized over the common good of society, our most vulnerable residents stand to suffer the most.
“County Executive Blakeman can say that ‘Nassau is normal again’ all he wants,” Biamonte continued, “but as Omicron continues to spread like wildfire and hospitalize more children than any other Covid variant to date, this is a recipe for disaster.”
Blakeman, a Republican, said he was directly opposing an order put in place in early December by Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, requiring mask use in public spaces. The state mandate was originally set to expire in mid-January, but Hochul recently extended it through Feb. 1.
“As governor,” she said on Dec. 10, “my two top priorities are to protect the health of New Yorkers and to protect the health of our economy.”
The county executive’s legal counsel drafted the orders that Blakeman signed, said his spokesman, Chris Boyle.
Blakeman’s orders came at a time when Long Island’s Covid positivity rate was spiking at more than 25 percent — the highest in the state — and a growing number of school districts were reporting increased transmission of the disease, with some, such as Long Beach, being forced to close some schools because of staffing shortages. Hospitalization rates were rising as well.
Dominique DeLucia, whose daughter is also a student in the North Bellmore district, wrote to the Herald, “I am pro-parents’ choice all the way. Children should not be responsible to worry about adult problems. At this point, anyone who wants the vaccine and believes it works has already gotten it, so the children should be unmasked at this point.
“If parents want kids to wear masks, go for it,” DeLucia added. “If you truly believe masks work even after the experts have advised they don’t, then they should not be worried what the kid next to them is doing. At this point, we need to learn to live with the virus and treat it like the flu season — we never did any of these ridiculous behaviors before and kids should not be deprived of fresh air.”
“The order returns this decision back to the people that should have had it all along — parents and the local community,” wrote Will Luciani, a parent of two sons in the North Merrick district. “This never should have been a statewide, universal mandate — it never made sense in a state so large and populous to have one rule for everyone. Now school boards can make the best decisions for their communities with plenty of parent input.
“We never should have put so much of the burden on our kids and I’m glad that we will be able to restore some sense of normalcy to their lives,” Luciani added. “It’s been frustrating for months to watch kids in other states get to go to school like normal, with no masks, while my first grade son at Old Mill Road School in North Merrick has never even seen the faces of his teachers or classmates.”
The county plans to distribute KN95 masks to private and public schools for staff, and especially teachers.
Not everyone in Bellmore-Merrick was comfortable with the executive order, however. Carson Termotto, a North Merrick resident and a 2019 graduate of Sanford H. Calhoun High School, said, “It is imperative that our districts take every measure to ensure the safety of our children while in school so they can remain in school.
“I am confident our school board will continue to act responsibly by enforcing the mask requirements as dictated by state law,” Termotto added.