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School mask mandate can be lifted, state says. But NYC plans to keep face coverings.

A stack of homemade fabric face masks
A stack of homemade fabric face masks.
Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash

New York City schools will still require masks despite state guidance allowing localities to lift masking mandates Monday for schools and summer camps.

The end of the in-school masking mandate was revealed Friday in a letter from State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

No one will be required to wear masks inside of schools or outdoors, Zucker wrote. However, people who are unvaccinated will be “strongly encouraged” to mask up inside, while the same will be suggested for unvaccinated people who are outdoors in “higher-risk” outdoor situations. The CDC defines this as being in close contact with others.

This new guidance will still allow schools and camps to impose stricter rules, Zucker wrote.

New York City schools, which require all students and staff to wear masks on school grounds, aren’t planning to change course for the rest of this year or for its ambitious summer school program.

“The health and safety of our students, educators and staff remain our top priority,” wrote Danielle Filson, spokesperson for the education department. “Per State guidance, local districts may implement standards that make the most sense for their communities, and we are continuing with our universal mask policy at our schools.”

Currently, vaccines are available only to people ages 12 and older. As coronavirus rates have dropped and vaccinations have gone up, federal officials have loosened general masking and social distancing guidance. It remains to be seen if the CDC will issue new masking and social distancing guidelines ahead of next school year and what changes city schools will make.

Zucker’s letter raised concerns about inconsistent federal guidance between masking for K-12 schools and youth camps. While the CDC recommends universal masking at schools, it only makes a distinction between outdoor and indoor activities for camps — specifically noting that people generally don’t need masks outdoors. The CDC encourages masks for unvaccinated people indoors, as well as outdoors if they are in close contact with other people, especially in an area where the coronavirus transmission rate is high.

Barring any concerns from the CDC, Zucker wrote that the new guidance will go into effect Monday.

Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, said the Friday announcement was “whiplash-inducing news,” with just a few weeks left of the school year.

“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,” Pallotta said in a statement.

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