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NYC to end school mask mandate Monday for most students

Students walk through the lobby of P.S. 89, with ornate murals on the walls and light blue doors.

Students walk through the lobby of P.S. 89 in Brooklyn. Masks will be optional in New York City schools as of Monday.

José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat

Most New York City students will no longer have to wear masks in schools, Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday, saying that health indicators have improved enough to do away with a layer of COVID protection that has been a staple throughout the pandemic. 

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade can shed their masks beginning Monday, March 7. Officials previously announced that children in pre-K and younger, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, will have to continue covering their nose and mouth while in schools and daycares. 

“We want to see the faces of our children. We want to see their smiles,” Adams said at a press conference in Times Square. “Masks have prevented us from doing so for almost two years.”

After testing positive for COVID, students can return to school without symptoms on Day 6, but will be required to mask up through Day 10. That’s according to state guidance, which also “strongly” recommends that students mask for 10 days after being exposed to someone with the virus. 

New York City’s move follows Gov. Kathy Hochul’s decision to lift New York’s mask mandate for the state’s students, which took effect this week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also changed its guidance last week, advising that masks could come off in schools where community COVID metrics are low.

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In New York City, students were allowed to unmask during outdoor time this week, but officials waited a bit longer to end the mandate entirely — until after students returned to classrooms following a week-long recess, when students potentially traveled and gathered. 

With no post-break bump in positive cases in schools, the United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said it was the “right time” to end the mask requirement. 

“This is the responsible, thoughtful way to make our next transition,” he said. 

Transmission rates and hospitalizations in the city have plummeted since the record-high explosion of cases driven by the omicron variant earlier this winter. There were 161 new COVID cases in schools Thursday, city data showed. The CDC now considers New York City to be a community of low COVID burden, based on the number of new cases and hospital capacity. 

Though clashes over school mask mandates have saturated news headlines, polling has consistently shown widespread support for them. Evidence is slim on the health benefits of masking in classrooms though there is rigorous evidence that surgical masks reduce the spread of COVID generally, and there is little reason to think that schools would be exempt. There is also sparse proof of harms that could be stemming from masking students.

Students and staff can continue masking, if they prefer. Hochul and state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett released a letter Tuesday saying that children should not be “stigmatized, bullied, or made to feel uncomfortable” for deciding to stick with, or forgo, covering their face. 

Naomi Okunrobo, a senior at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, said she will probably continue wearing her own mask and that many of her friends feel the same. 

She’s wary of loosening COVID safety protocols after watching her school close down during December’s omicron wave because so many students and staff got sick. Besides worrying about her school’s cramped hallways, she also feels safer masking up since her mother has diabetes and remains at higher risk of complications from the virus. 

“I still will wear my mask just to keep myself safe,” she said. “I’ve just gotten used to it. It doesn’t bother me.”

But Amber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said shedding masks is “justified” now that vaccines are widely available, COVID cases have dropped, and hospitals are no longer over-burdened. The seasonal nature of the virus bolstered the case as well.

“That reduces the risk metrics,” she said. “The reason that we’re rolling back the mandates to wear masks in school is really reflective — it’s not just a COVID fatigue — but really the science of coronavirus.”

Bryan Warner, a senior at Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, said he doesn’t see the need for masks in schools, especially since he and many of his friends recovered from catching COVID amid the omicron surge. He credits being vaccinated with only feeling mildly ill. 

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Coupled with his school’s vaccination rate of about 93%, which is among the highest in the city, Warner said: “I don’t really have a health concern anymore.” 

On other hand, Warner said he’s gotten so accustomed to wearing his blue surgical mask that he doesn’t notice it anymore. And he would want to see a mandate in place again if another variant pops up. 

“It could be a temporary measure that only lasts like two or three weeks, until we know more. I would say it’s like a ‘better safe than sorry’ kind of thing,” he said.  

Adams said the city will be “unafraid” to reinstate safety measures if the health picture changes, and unveiled a new color-coded alert system to help the public understand the level of COVID risk.

New York’s most recent state guidance allows for removing masks in pre-K classrooms. While those children haven’t had the chance to get vaccinated, young children also are also at lower risk, D’Souza said. So she said she was surprised by the city’s decision to continue masking children under 5-years-old. She said it’s “appropriate” to consider removing masks as rates drive lower. 

“These are difficult decisions to make,” D’Souza said. “When you are mandating that everyone does it, it’s so that we protect each other. And children 5 and older have had the opportunity to protect themselves by vaccinations; younger children have not.” 

Adams said that city data showed that those under 5-years-old had higher hospitalization rates than older children, which is why the mask mandate would remain in place for the youngest students. A recent Yale study found fewer shut downs among child centers where masks were worn.  

While, overall, rates have trended in the right direction in New York City, there are disparities across neighborhoods. School-level vaccination rates vary from just 12% to almost 93%. 

NeQuan McLean, a parent leader in Brooklyn’s District 16, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in city, said that the decision to remove masks should have been left to local communities.”Why would we lift something that has made us safe? We should be trying to educate folks about why they should get vaccinated, and then have conversations about, ‘Is this the right policy?’” he said. “To make a blanket decision for 1 million students… is concerning.”

Read next: NYC schools received a windfall in relief dollars. Some are struggling to spend it.

Some elected officials recently called on the mayor to mandate vaccinations for students next school year, something that Adams has previously signaled he’s open to. Asked on Friday whether he’d take that step, Adams said it’s under discussion with the city’s health advisors. 

“When it’s time to roll that out, we’ll roll that out,” he said. 

Michelle Nichols, an associate dean at the Morehouse School of Medicine, said a vaccination requirement is “something we probably need to work towards,” but that there needs to be an intense information campaign targeted at parents.

“Mandates might be a little much at this point because you’re probably going to have those who are determined not to do it,” she said. 

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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