Update, Aug. 25: On Tuesday, New York State Govenor Kathy Hochul directed the New York State Department of Health to institute a universal mask requirement in all schools, public and private, as determined necessary at the discretion of the Commissioner. The Department of Health will issue the requirement through regulatory action established by the Public Health and Health Planning Council.
Read the original story as it appeared in the Wantagh Herald below.
“Stop following CDC guidelines!”
“Make your own decisions!”
These were just a few of the sentiments that some community members launched at district administrators during the Wantagh Union Free School District Board of Education meeting on Aug. 19.
More than 100 community members turned out for the two-hour-long regular meeting, some demanding the school make masks optional for the 2021-22 academic year. The meeting took place just hours after the neighboring Massapequa School District announced that masks would no longer be required in classrooms.
Before the public comment period, Superintendent John McNamara gave an update on the district’s reopening plan, which could be finalized late this week. Wantagh is expected to fully open schools on Sept. 1, McNamara said. Students will follow traditional starting times and schedules; they will be offered all extracurriculars; desk shields will not be used; and students will be free to use lockers and locker rooms. Masks will be required on school buses.
According to the reopening plan posted on the district website, its mask policy would be “guided by the local infection rate, guidance from trained medical professionals, and any new mandates from the New York State Education Department.”
McNamara said that the district would prioritize maintaining a safe learning environment for all, maximizing students’ time spent in school with minimal disruption, addressing learning gaps created by the pandemic, and improving socio-emotional learning. “The district continues to carefully and thoughtfully plan for the safe reopening of schools in September,” he said in an emailed statement after the meeting. “We continue to monitor the guidance of health officials and look forward to making an announcement in the coming days regarding our reopening plans.”
When given the chance, many meeting attendees expressed their frustration with the possibility that masks may be required. One, Christina Corwin, said that the school board was not responsible “for rendering medical decisions” for children.
“In hospitals . . . the protocol to be adequately protected [from Covid-19] is a fit-tested N-95 mask, eye protection, masks and gloves,” Corwin said. “Unless you’re willing to mandate that level of protection for children, safety is a farce. I know that’s a scary thing to hear, but by all means, if a person is fearful, they have the right to protect themselves. That’s called individual choice and freedom.”
Wantagh resident Marilynne Rich said that it’s “absolutely unreasonable” to have children wear masks all day, and that “the decision should be left up to the parents.”
In the Wantagh school district, there were 374 cases of Covid-19 among students last year, and a total of 431 cases, the largest number at Wantagh High School, according to a presentation.
Incoming 10th-grader Maggie Massari said that wearing masks last year left her unable to focus, and that she became familiar with the sensation of not wearing a mask this summer. “I went the whole summer going normal, and now it has to be taken away,” Massari said. “Life the past year and a half has been such a struggle, and now, if you’re going to make us wear these masks, it just makes it worse.”
John Nistico, who is running for governor in 2022 on the Constitutional Patriot Party line, told the school board that he wanted to know the adverse effects of mask-wearing on children. The district administration, Nistico said, “will be held responsible for how masks are damaging our children.”
Other parents expressed their support for a mask mandate. Meredith Bernstein, a pediatrician with three children in the district, said that leaving children unmasked in the classroom would present a risk.
“If we leave our children unvaccinated, unmasked, seated in a classroom next to unvaccinated, unmasked children coming from unvaccinated, unmasked homes . . . what will it do to our children?” Bernstein asked. “How many dead children will it take for you folks to say that we should stop and rethink this?”
Perry Fuchs, who has a daughter in Mandalay Bay Elementary School, said that remote learning was detrimental to the well-being of students, so in-person learning was the way to go. To do that safely, Fuchs said, masks are necessary. “Many school districts have had to close due to Covid,” she said, “and if wearing a mask is how to avoid that, then that’s how we do it.”
“Since the beginning, Wantagh School District has followed guidance from the state,” newly elected school board President Anthony Greco said. “We are still following the guidance. We have one thing to do, and that is to put the safety of our students first.”
As the audience erupted in shouts of “No!” and “Our choice!” some got to their feet and approached the trustees. Security guards positioned themselves between the seats and the stage. Greco and the other school board members concluded the meeting.
More than 30 people had written to the board since the last school board meeting in early July, according to the Aug. 19 meeting agenda. It was unclear, however, whether any of the letters addressed the district’s mask policy.