Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who took office Monday, signed executive orders Thursday morning directing local boards of education to vote in January on whether their districts should mandate mask use, while also lifting the mask mandate for all county agencies and the state's temporary mask mandate in public places.
The orders read in part, ". . . given 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 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."
The orders were to take effect immediately.
In a memo to local school districts, State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa issued a statement in reaction Thursday, saying, "Counties are required to enforce school masking regulations. The regulation, which applies to schools and many other sectors, requires local health departments to enforce school mask mandates.
"Counties do not have the legal authority," the commissioner continued, "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 to 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," he continued, "can say that 'Nassau is normal again' all he wants, 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 Dec. 10, "my two top priorities are to protect the health of New Yorkers and to protect the health of our economy. The temporary measures I am taking today will help accomplish this through the holiday season."
The governor said at the time that she expected the positivity rate would rise with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
The legal counsel for the county executive drafted the executive orders signed by Blakeman, said Chris Boyle, the county executive's spokesman.
Senator Kevin Thomas, a Democrat who represents the sixth senate district said in a statement that Blakeman’s “dismissive attitude” towards a time when Covid-19 rates are growing at an alarming rate is “concerning” and “downright irresponsible.”
“The Governor has been clear that the county does not have the authority to supersede state law in this matter,” Thomas said in a statement. “The County Executive should focus his efforts on working collaboratively with the state to keep our youngest residents safe, not politicizing the issue and creating more conflict and division within our communities."
People were quick to question whether the executive order was legal or not, but many school districts–like East Meadow– are waiting for guidance.
“We’re waiting to hear from the New York State Education Department,” Alisa Baroukh, president of the East Meadow Board of Education said. “...We take our guidance from the New York State Education Department and we don’t know right now.”
“I can imagine that every board of education in Nassau County is doing the same thing because it is just uncertain what any of this truly means for us,” she added.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the State Education Department said Thursday that local school boards cannot vote to violate either SED or State Health Department policy.
"We are aware of the County Executive's order and are awaiting further guidance from the NYS Education Department,” Kenneth Card, superintendent of the East Meadow School District said in a statement.”
Parents in the area, however, were quick to voice their opinions on the order.
“It is a virus just like the flu, it's not going anywhere,” Mariann DeRidder-Roche wrote to the Herald. “Common sense is if your child or anyone for that matter is not feeling well stay home.”
“We didn’t mask up for the flu, there is no need for this,” she added. “It should be a choice.”
“This is our choice as parents and our right to make the decision if they should be masked all day long or not,” Diana Schmidt, an East Meadow parent of two wrote to the Herald. “These are our children who need the parents (not district board members) to be making the choice of their well being. I hope that east meadow makes the right decision in giving us back our rights for our children.”
Not all parents agree with the new county executive’s decision, though.
“I’m very against taking away the mask mandate,” Melinda Geraghty, an East Meadow mother of a daughter in kindergarten and a son in nursery school. “Both wear masks with no problem. They both understand it’s how we stay safe and can have a relatively normal life.”
“...Nassau County has the highest positive rate in the state, now is not the time to remove masks,” she added. “If you remove the masks, rates will go up. I can’t trust my children’s health to other parents.” She also mentioned that it makes her nervous because her daughter is vaccinated, but her son is still too young.
Geraghty is right in saying that Blakeman's orders come at a time when Long Island's Covid positivity rate is the highest in the state. The numbers have been spiking at more than 25 percent, and a growing number of school districts are reporting increased transmission of the disease, with some, such as Long Beach, being forced to close certain schools because of staffing shortages. Hospitalization rates are rising, as well.
Blakeman also announced that 20,000 test kits would be distributed at Tobay Beach for county residents who live south of Hempstead Turnpike, and at Eisenhower Park for those who live north of the turnpike on Saturday, Jan . 8 and Sunday, Jan. 9, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. or until supplies last. There will also be what Blakeman called a vaccination pod this weekend at Nassau Community College from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. by appointment only. Go to
And the county will distribute KN95 masks to private and public schools for staff, especially teachers.
More to follow.