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Teachers seek mask mandate for classrooms 

Dan Clark New York Now

Schools in New York are busy finalizing plans to partially reopen, and many colleges and universities have already begun classes. But those who work at the schools, including teachers and professors, say guidelines for when to wear masks need to be more comprehensive to help prevent spread of the coronavirus.  

The state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, asking him to revise the policy on masks in schools to make them mandatory while in the classroom. 

“We are calling on the Department of Health to update its school reopening guidance to make it crystal clear that masks must be worn at all times on school grounds in districts where school buildings are reopening," said Andy Pallotta, the union’s president. 

In the spring, Cuomo issued an executive order that requires masks to be worn by adults and most children while out in public. But schools are not included in that. Instead, the health department mandates the use of masks in schools when 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.

Masks are strongly recommended at all other times, including in the classroom, but they are not mandatory once the student is sitting down at a socially distanced desk.  

As a result, the teachers union said, schools have adopted “disparate” mask policies, and some have left teachers and some parents uneasy. For example, in the Watkins Glen school district in the Southern Tier, masks will be mandatory in hallways, but not in classrooms. School districts in Batavia in western New York, Naples in the Finger Lakes, and Argyle in the Capital Region have adopted similar policies. 

Diane Vanyo, president of the Argyle Teachers Association, said if students don’t have masks on in the classrooms, teachers will be limited in their interaction with them, and that could affect learning.  

“We can’t move around and help them on an individual basis,” said Vanyo, who added that teachers won’t be able to access their smartboards or other technologies used to make lessons more engaging. 

She said many students are fearful and anxious about going back to school, and teachers must do what they can to make it more comfortable for them.

“If a teacher is lecturing from the corner of a classroom behind a Plexiglas shield, we cannot meet that end,” she said.  

She also said teachers could also inadvertently become spreaders of the virus as they shuttle from classroom to classroom.  

NYSUT, in its letter to the health commissioner, said that requiring temperature screenings and asking about possible COVID-19 symptoms is not enough. Those checks don’t find asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases, where the person could be unknowingly spreading the disease. The union said face coverings offer the only secure protection. 

Masks would not need to be worn during meals and during brief scheduled break periods during the day.  

The states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, as well as New York City, require masks at all times in their schools.  

Fred Kowal, the head of United University Professions, the union representing college professors and other faculty in the State University of New York system, said he’d like to see stricter mask rules, too. 

“Some of the campuses are just saying that as long as you maintain a 6-foot distance, you don’t have to wear a mask,” Kowal said. “We don’t think that’s safe.” 

Cuomo, speaking in a conference call with reporters, said he wants to leave the mask rules as they are. He said there are “major differences” among school districts in the state, and flexibility is needed. 

“The local school districts, they don’t need me to say in New York City when the children should wear a mask or in Buffalo or on Long Island,” Cuomo said. “You don’t need a state rule to do something in your school district.” 

But Cuomo said if teachers don’t feel safe, they should tell their school administrators that they are not returning to teach this year without a mandatory mask rule in place. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.