Not long after Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman signed executive orders on Jan. 6 requiring 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, reaction, especially regarding schools, came fast and furious.
Lawrence Board of Education President Murray Forman, who served as part of Blakeman’s transition team, said the board is researching the issue. “It is not clear to me who is the ultimate arbiter, State Education Department or the Department of Health. Right now we have to see what the story is,” Forman said.
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 were to take effect immediately.
After saying that the district would await further guidance, Hewlett-Woodmere School District Superintendent Dr. Ralph Marino emailed the community on Jan. 10. “We have advised that the mask mandate is a law in the State of New York that can only be repealed by a legislative act, rescinded by the Department of Health or rendered invalid by a court,” Marino wrote. “Local officials do not have the authority to make the mandate optional for schools or require Boards of Education to pass a new resolution regarding masks.” He added the district will continue to adhere to the state mask mandate until its current expiration date of Jan. 15.
"As a board member, my primary concern is for continuity of education, while maintining the health and safety of our school community," said Hewlett-Woodmere Board of Education President Debra Sheinin. "The district will continue to uphold the current New York state mask mandate."
“The idea that we are still arguing over something as simple as masks in the middle of this current surge, when in my own district we have dozens of teachers and hundreds of students quarantined with more every day, is beyond absurd,” Ric Stark, president of the Hewlett-Woodmere Faculty Association, wrote in an email. “Whether the county executive actually has the authority to override the governor is a question I leave to people smarter than me.”
“The safety of our teachers, students, entire staff is paramount with this Omicron variant being so contagious we need to keep everyone safe,” said Rachel Kreiss, president of the Lawrence Teachers Association. “Ask any medical expert, masks are keeping us safe.”
The county will distribute KN95 masks to private and public schools for staff, especially teachers. "Any personal protective equipment that staff members are willing to use voluntarily that is provided by the county, federal or the state is always very much appreciated," Forman said. Kreiss also said she appreciates receiving the masks.
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 hosptialize more children than any other Covid variant to date, this is a recipe for disaster.”
State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa noting the state Health Commissioner's decisions of Aug. 26 and Dec. 10 of 2021, stated that counties are required to enforce school masking regulations. She added that the health commissioner can direct the local health department to enforce the regulation under the public health law.
“Counties do not have the legal authority to require boards of education to vote on specific issues. School officers take an oath of office to obey all legal requirements,” Rosa said in her statement. "The State Education Department expects school boards will follow all legal requirements, including the face-covering regulation.”
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, Blakeman's spokesman.
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.
Blakeman’s orders come at a time when Long Island’s Covid positivity rate — the highest in the state — is 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.
On Jan. 8 and Jan. 9, the county distributed 40,000 Covid tests kits at Eisenhower Park and Tobay Beach. There was also a vaccination pod at Nassau Community College on the same days. Boyle said, the county is working to do it again in the near future.
"We want the governor to understand, here in Nassau County we are not in crisis," Blakeman said at Tobay Beach on Jan. 8. At the end of this week, he said that 100,000 KN95 maks will be given out. "We're in god shape, let's gets back to normal."
Story refelects an addition of a quote from Hewlett-Woodmere Board of Education President Debra Sheinin.