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COVID-19

NY plans to relax school mask mandate

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AP Poll Virus Outbreak Schools

Students wearing face masks work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas, Dec. 3, 2020.

New York is moving toward easing its mask mandate for schools and using the same guidance for summer camps. 

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker sent a letter to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advising her of New York's plan to establish consistent guidance for camps and schools. 

According to Zucker's letter, masks will be "strongly encouraged but not required" indoors for unvaccinated students, teachers, campers and staff. When outdoors, masks won't be required but anyone who is not fully vaccinated will be encouraged to wear a mask. Campers, students and staff who are fully vaccinated don't have to wear masks indoors or outdoors. 

Zucker wrote that schools and camps "may choose to implement stricter standards." 

The purpose of the letter is to seek any information that would prevent New York from implementing the new guidance. Zucker notified Walensky that the state plans to make the guidance effective on Monday. 

Under New York's existing guidance for schools, masks are required at all times except during meals. For camps, the state is recommending the use of masks, especially indoors. 

The CDC's guidance lacks consistency. The agency recommends a mask mandate in schools but not for youth camps. It only "strongly encourages" wearing masks indoors at camps if people aren't fully vaccinated. 

Zucker explained that the state will align its camp and school mask guidance since "many camps take place on school grounds, both serve school-age children and the end of the school year/start of the camp season both occur in June." 

"As we continue to work to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and balance reopening with safety, New York state strives for consistency across and between settings with similar risk levels and populations," he wrote. 

The new guidance would be a significant change, especially for schools. While schools could continue to require masks, it would no longer be a state mandate. There have been calls for the requirement to end because schoolchildren have needed to wear masks throughout the school day except when eating. That means they could go hours without being able to remove their mask. 

Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, said the state's announcement is "whiplash-inducing news."

"Short of any additional guidance from the state or the CDC before Monday, we implore school districts to closely evaluate local conditions and connect with their educators and parents to decide the best course of action for protecting their school community," he said. 

New York's improving COVID-19 numbers allow for the removal of many restrictions that have been in place for months. The state Department of Health reported on Friday that the 7-day average positivity rate was 0.56%, the lowest since New York began tracking virus-related data. 

As the positivity rate falls, the vaccination rate is on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers age 18 and older have received at least one vaccine dose. More than 46% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, including 57.9% of adults age 18 and older. 

"Our numbers are trending in the right direction and much of the economy has been reopened but we cannot lose sight of our vaccination goals," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "For everyone who hasn't yet been vaccinated, remember that you don't just protect yourself with the shot — you protect family, friends and our state, so make an appointment or walk into a site today." 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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