New York could lift school mask mandate by March, Hochul says

Gov. Kathy Hochul said it is “a very strong possibility” the school mask mandate will be lifted by the second week of March, if COVID trends continue dropping.
Photo courtesy Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

New York plans to reevaluate its mask mandate for schools in March, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday.

It is “a very strong possibility” the mandate will be lifted by the second week of March, if COVID trends continue to drop, Hochul said. Cases and hospitalizations have been dropping dramatically after a sudden explosion fueled by the omicron variant.

The governor stressed that the decision whether to remove masks will not be based on any single factor, but on a combination of indicators such as positivity rates, vaccinations, and hospital admissions.

“We are still setting forth to protect the students. The numbers are trending much better, and there definitely is an end in sight,” Hochul said.

Cases in New York City schools peaked in January, reaching a single-day high of more than 14,000 on Jan. 10, according to city education department officials. On Tuesday, there were 387 cases reported, city data show.

Masking in schools has been a flashpoint throughout the pandemic, even though polling shows strong support among parents, educators, and the general public. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that cases remain high, and “now is not the moment” to end mask mandates in places like schools.

Still, there is little rigorous evidence about the effectiveness, or the harms, of masking in schools. Nearby states including New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts recently announced sunsets to school masking requirements. Some vocal parents and educators have worried that masks interfere with learning as well as students’ ability to socialize, and that some children with disabilities cannot tolerate covering their faces.

In New York, Hochul announced that masking will no longer be required for businesses as of Thursday. But when it comes to schools, she said state leaders want to wait until after the mid-winter recess to decide whether students should continue covering their faces. New York City schools will be on break the week of Feb. 21.

The state is sending at-home COVID test kits to school districts for students to take home ahead of the upcoming February recess. Hochul said she wants students to test on the first day back from the break, and again three days later. Hochul said the results will guide decision-making on whether universal masking should stay in place.

New York City officials did not immediately say whether students will be required to take the at-home tests, but the city’s in-school PCR testing program has remained voluntary so far this year.

State officials are also working with education leaders across New York to come up with new COVID safety guidance — including parameters for what might trigger masking requirements to be put back in place, should the mandate be dropped, the governor said.

“This pandemic is still with us and we will continue reassuring the people of the state that we will take the most thoughtful approach possible,” Hochul said.

Even if the state moves to end masking requirements in schools, it’s likely the decision will ultimately be left to local officials to decide. New York City has had a mask mandate in place since before the state’s order.

“If Gov. Hochul changes state policy, we’ll have more to say,” wrote Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the New York City education department.

Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, praised the governor’s approach.

“We are all excited about the possibility of lifting these restrictions, but Governor Hochul’s thoughtful and prudent approach is the right one,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.