New Governor Says Masks Mandatory For New York Students And School Staff

New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivers an address to New Yorkers from the Red Room at the state Capitol August 24. MIKE GROLL/OFFICE OF GOVERNOR KATHY HOCHUL

Newly-instated Governor Kathy Hochul has mandated masks for students and staff at schools across New York, and called for COVID-19 vaccines to be mandatory for school staff, with an option of weekly testing, on her first day in office on Tuesday. She also called on the state Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering New York schools.

“None of us want a rerun of last year’s horrors with COVID-19,” she said during her first address from Albany, Tuesday afternoon. “Priority No. 1: We get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn and everyone is safe.”

She said for months she has consulted parents, elected officials, teachers, school boards and school superintendents, and as a result, she said, vaccinations need to be required. The governor’s announcement comes a day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would require all employees of the city’s Department of Education to receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by September 27. The city requirement will apply to almost every adult working inside public school buildings.

“We know this is going to help ensure that everyone is safe,” Mayor de Blasio said during a news conference, adding that city schools had extremely low rates of virus transmission last year. He said the mandate will help the city “build on that success.”

Governor Hochul said, using $335 million in federal funds, a back-to-school COVID-19 testing program will be launched to make testing for students and staff wildly available and convenient. The Testing in Schools Program will be in partnership with local health departments and BOCES. New York City has received $225 million directly to initiate the same program.

Testing appointments will be available to New York students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade at the 115 Rite Aid drive-through locations. Students are required to pre-register online and schedule a time slot for testing. Students aged 17 and under must have parental or legal guardian consent and be accompanied by a guardian at the time of testing in the drive- through. Digital results will be delivered to parents for students to bring to school. COVID-19 testing is voluntary and will be provided at no cost to the student’s family nor to the school district.

“Our highest priority is helping to ensure the health and safety of our students and educators as we work together to combat COVID-19. Since early July, COVID-19 cases in New York have risen 10-fold and 95 percent of sequenced positive cases were confirmed to be delta variant. Based on incidence and prevalence, our findings demonstrate the necessity of layered prevention strategies, including this mask requirement,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. “While a simple measure of prevention, requiring masks now is crucial for protecting the health of our children and ensuring we can get our students back in their schools this fall.”

In addition to these new testing programs, New York State has available more than 4.3 million child-sized and about 10 million adult-sized cloth face masks, and almost 55 million non-surgical face masks to provide to students and teachers in schools across the state.

Governor Hochul said later this week she will also be announcing a series of school-related policies.

“They’ll be concise and consistent, giving the school districts what they’ve been asking for,” the governor said, adding that her second priority will be to increasing vaccination rates. “They’re putting themselves and their communities at risk. With the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine yesterday, New Yorkers can expect new vaccine requirements, and more on that soon.”

Commissioner of Education Dr. Betty A. Rosa said Governor Hochul’s action demonstrates her commitment to the health and wellbeing of students and the importance of keeping schools open. New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said Governor Hochul brings a “breath of fresh air” to Albany.

“She already is taking decisive action to bolster health and safety in our schools. We support universal mask wearing as part of a layered mitigation strategy that also includes robust COVID testing, contract tracing, proper ventilation and other strategies recommended by public health experts,” Mr. Pallotta said. “We also support the governor’s move to require regular COVID testing for school staff who are not yet vaccinated. It’s critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level.”

Governor Hochul also told New Yorkers to prepare for booster shots, making sure they will be available and distributed quickly and reliably. In consult with Dr. Anthony Fauci last week, the pair discussed the need for vaccinated individuals to receive a booster shot at eight months.

“I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary,” the governor said. “My priorities are now the priorities of the people of New York — and right now that means fighting the delta variant.”