Mask mandate divides Locust Valley School District

School board member Zito, no longer against masking, resigns


The division among parents, school administrators and residents was clear in Locust Valley High School’s auditorium on Tuesday night. There for a Board of Education meeting, at which the focus of discussion was a lawsuit filed on Sept. 10 by the district against the state in response to its school mask mandate, a large group of mask-less people sat on one side of the auditorium, and a smaller group, wearing masks, sat on the other.

Board trustees, with the exception of Vice President Margaret Marchand and Lauren Themis, wore masks, as did Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Graham and other administrators sitting nearby. Behind them, on a large screen, was the directive, “All visitors must wear a mask while indoors.”

Although the district is complying with the state Department of Health’s mandate that masks be worn indoors by all students, faculty, staff — and visitors — it fell to board President Brian Nolan to enforce it at the meeting. He did not. Reached the next day by phone, Nolan said he had spoken to the district’s legal counsel before the meeting, and was advised only to make the public aware of the mandate, which he did by posting it on the screen.

“I didn’t want to engage in any conflict at the meeting, and didn’t want to have to adjourn the meeting,” Nolan said. “I don’t have an answer as to why Margaret didn’t wear a mask. We will be following up with counsel.”

Themis appeared to be eating a snack during the meeting. When she wasn’t, she put on her mask. When Nolan was asked afterward if eating was appropriate at a board meeting, he said no. “The board will discuss this,” he said. “[Masks] are a hot-button issue.”

At the meeting, Stephanie Lamb, of Bayville, brought up a letter Nolan had received from Dr. Betty Rosa, the state commissioner of education, on Sept. 7. The previous night, the board had voted not to follow the mask mandate, and Rosa wrote that the district’s “willful violation” of the directive would result in Nolan’s removal from office. The board then voted 5-2 to follow the mandate, with Themis abstaining and Marchand the lone dissenter.

“There was still one ‘willful violation’ vote, and the board member still remains,” Lamb said. “What is the difference between the president of the board versus the vice president of the board voting in willful violation?”

Nolan read Trustee Dr. Joseph A. Zito’s letter of resignation. An emergency medical physician, Zito said he could no longer serve on the board because his workload had become too demanding.

Zito had initially voted to defy the mandate, and then voted to allow it. He also supported the lawsuit. Nonetheless, he wrote, “As a physician working on the frontlines of Covid on a daily basis for 18 months I can say with absolute certainty that the most important thing you can do for yourself and your children is to get vaccinated,” Zito wrote. “I am no longer in favor of pursuing the mask mandate lawsuit … The lawsuit is a wasteful exercise of time and resources that could be better spent enriching the learning experience for our students.”

Zito added that although Covid was stressful for everyone, it was not an excuse for “the anger and vitriol that I have witnessed in the past year and is certainly not the behavior we wish to model for our children. … [T]his divisiveness will cause irreparable harm to our community.”

The district joined the Massapequa School District in filing suit against the state in New York State Supreme Court, and hired the law firm, Hamburger, Maxson, Yaffe & Martingale, to represent it. A few parents wanted to know the cost of hiring the firm.

The retainer alone would be between $75,000 and $100,000, Bayville resident Amy Hartnett said. “Then we will be billed $350 per billable hour for partners and $250 per billable hour for law associates to work on this case,” she said. “Where will the money come from? Is there a limit as to how much we will spend on this lawsuit? How much money is the district willing to redirect from meaningful learning initiatives to satisfy its own hubris?”

But Kim Rizzo, also of Bayville, said the lawsuit was important. “This is no longer about masks,” she said. “It’s about our rights and freedoms being taken away from us. We should not be dismissed.”

Rizzo brought a document that she said had 300 signatures from residents who supported the lawsuit, which she presented to the board. “I’m representing parents for choice,” she said. “We will advocate for every child.”

Lamb took issue with some of the information in the lawsuit. “Board President Nolan stated all Locust Valley classrooms are air-conditioned,” she said. “If this is true, there are a lot of parents, students and faculty who are unaware of that.”

Nolan acknowledged the next day that his statement was in error, and called it an oversight. “We submitted a corrected version of the lawsuit,” he said. “It should have said that we have air purifiers in every classroom.”

The lawsuit also states that classroom desks and seats are at least three feet apart, which Lamb said is not the case. The week before the school board meeting, Patrick DiClemente, the principal of Locust Valley High School, said at a meeting with parents that students were not adhering to the three-foot social distancing policy in the cafeteria.

“He is seriously considering reinstating the single seating he had last year,” Lamb said of DiClemente. “This is the high school … I have a hard time imagining that this is working better with the younger grades in the district. Those are the students who cannot yet receive the vaccine.”

In claiming that the mask mandate is not necessary in schools, the lawsuit cites the area’s high vaccine rate. “Nassau County has the highest vaccination rate of any county in the state,” it states. “Currently 89.0% of the adults in Nassau County have at least one vaccination dose. … This is the third highest vaccination rate for any county with over one million people.”

Lamb did not question the statistic, but said it did not include children under age 12, making it misleading.

Not everyone shared Lamb’s outrage over the lawsuit. Marisa Friedrich said she pulled two of her children out of the district because of the mask mandate, and supported the lawsuit. “We need to stand up for the rights of our kids and our parental rights,” she said. “We are at war — war on the family and war on parental choice. A child’s right to breathe is secondary, at best.”