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New York health commissioner says no decision yet on ending school mask mandate

Dr. Mary Bassett, the state's health commissioner, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 2, 2021.
Dr. Mary Bassett, the state's health commissioner, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 2, 2021.

ALBANY, NY (WSKG) - New York’s health commissioner said there’s no set date to get rid of New York’s COVID-19 pandemic mask mandate for schoolchildren.

Dr. Mary Bassett addressed the hot-button issue as she testified at a joint legislative budget hearing Tuesday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will make an announcement on Wednesday regarding the state’s mask mandates for businesses, which includes regulations for offices, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. The mandate, which Hochul has extended in the past, expires on Thursday. But the governor hinted that she might propose a shorter extension this time or let it end altogether.

At the Senate and Assembly budget hearing, Bassett said the mandates, along with efforts to promote vaccinations and improve access to testing, are working. She credited the rules with helping to bring down the infection rate of the omicron variant by over 90% in less than a month.

“We are on a sustained downturn,” Bassett told lawmakers.

Sen. John Liu asked Bassett when children could stop wearing masks in their classrooms.

“What’s the status of that mask mandate in schools and is it going to change sometime soon?” Liu asked.

Bassett answered that it’s too early to decide that: “There has been no decision made on a date on which the mask mandate in schools will end."

She said she’s “very aware” of the challenges that the pandemic has placed on children and the disruptions in the education system.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep children safe and in school. And we’ve done that by throwing everything we have, in terms of preventions, interventions," Bassett said. “And that will remain a priority.”

Liu, a liberal Democrat from Queens, said New Jersey and Connecticut are ending their school mask mandates shortly, and he said he’d like to see scientific evidence for why New York should not follow suit.

“We say that this is all based on science. It’s more difficult to keep explaining that to our constituents when neighboring states are starting to lift their mask mandates, including for school kids,” Liu said.

Hochul on Tuesday met privately with school leaders, including superintendents, principals, school boards, and parent teacher associations.

Following the meeting, the school leaders said,  in a statement, that they were grateful to speak to the governor directly about her pending decision, and hope that circumstances will allow the mandate to end soon.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents wrote a letter to Bassett, saying they want to know more about the science and metrics behind mask mandate decisions, so that they can better explain the rules to students and the parents who are questioning the mandates. They also want to know what the criteria will be for ending the mask mandates.

The governor has expressed concern over the relatively low number of children aged 5 to 11 in the state who are vaccinated. Only about 34% have received their shots, even though the vaccine has been available for that age group since November.

Bassett also faced questions from Republican lawmakers, many of whom have advocated for ending all mask mandates.

Assemblyman Edward Ra asked whether the health commissioner believes that the Legislature should be consulted about the mandates as well as rules requiring vaccinations for health care workers and quarantine procedures for those who test positive for the virus.

He pointed out that Hochul no longer holds the temporary emergency powers that the Senate and Assembly granted to her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, earlier in the pandemic.

“This seems to be an end run around the Legislature at this point,” Ra said, “to be pursuing permanent regulations in this regard.”

Bassett said the health department’s Public Health and Planning Council has been guiding the decisions. The Council is made up of medical experts and health care leaders who, among other things, advise the commissioner on the “preservation and improvement of public health.”

The regulation authorizing the health commissioner to issue the school mask mandate expires Feb. 21.

Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the health department, said the Public Health and Planning Council is expected at its meeting on Thursday to renew the commissioner’s authority to order mask wearing in schools, in hospitals and on public transit.

She could not say when the mandates might end.