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.
Shortly after, the New York State Commissioner of Education, Betty A. Rosa, who is also president of the University of the State of New York, issued a statement that read, in part, "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 eduction 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."
Glen Cove City School District Superintendent Dr. Maria Rianna agreed that the Blakeman's directives "run directly counter to current New York State mandates." Therefore, she said, the district is conferring with its legal counsel and will await further clarification from the Governor's office and the New York State Department of Health.
"Until the district receives additional clarification," Rianna said in a statement, "we will continue to adhere to all our Covid-19 related protocols, including complying with the state mandate requiring masks be worn by all students, district personnel and visitors while in district buildings. Once the district does receive the necessary clarification from our legal counsel, appropriate action will be taken."
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."
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 county executive drafted the executive orders signed by Blakeman, said Chris Boyle, the county executive'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.
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 https://www.nassaucountyny.gov/.
And the county will distribute KN95 masks to private and public schools for staff, especially teachers.
More to follow.
Jeff Bessen and Jill Nossa contributed to this story.