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NYC parents look ahead with mixed feelings to life without school mask mandates

While New York City’s mask mandate for schools remains in place for now, some families are eagerly anticipating a future without required face coverings for their kids, while others are taking a “wait and see” attitude.

On Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced she was ending statewide mask mandates for businesses and other indoor spaces. But she pointedly singled out schools as one of the arenas where masks would continue to be required for the time being until after the winter break, the week of February 21st to the 25th, when she planned to revisit the mandate.

Mayor Eric Adams has also indicated he wanted to be cautious when it comes to easing mask mandates, telling reporters on Thursday that he would rather live with the discomfort just to be safe. However, he admitted, “I want to get rid of these darn masks so bad.”

Petitions have circulated to demand the end of the mask requirement in New York schools, though at least one incorrectly states there’s no evidence that mask policies in schools have decreased rates of COVID-19 —many studies have, in fact, found that masks are effective at reducing COVID-19 transmission.

At least one education official said it’s only a matter of time before the mask orders are lifted.

“This is going to be one of those things that sooner or later we’re going to have to relax the mask mandate. Exactly when that’s going to be is going to be up to the governor and then the mayor and chancellor,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators union which represents New York City school principals.

One parent said she didn’t understand why kids had to wear masks in school when bars and restaurants have unmasked customers: “If the politicians think the kids can walk by a restaurant with 75 people unmasked eating dinner and not feel a sense of injustice they’re wrong. These kids are feeling it now,” said Lauren, a caller into WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show Thursday, who said her youngest child in kindergarten has never attended school without a mask requirement. “It’s been two years. I think more concrete language and dates on when we can expect to allow our kids to really get back to normal … would really be a huge step forward.”

Other parents said they were cautious in ditching masks for their kids immediately.

“I’m not really in any hurry to have it lifted but I am thankful to have that option back on the table,” said Charlotte Arnold of Brooklyn, who said her son will be “smiling from ear to ear every single day he does not have to wear a mask.”

Rehman Qumar, who has three kids at an elementary school in Kensington in Brooklyn, said it’s too soon for students to go maskless in class.

“No, I think it’s safer to wear the mask right now. Because the virus is still there. Yeah, so they still have to wear the mask I think,” he said.

There was concern that parents who have already been hesitant to send their kids to school this year might be more likely to keep them home if people stop wearing masks. “The parents not sending their kids is going to be a concern to some degree,” Cannizzaro of the CSA union said. “There will be some people who lay back for a while to see how things play out.”

Council Member Rita Joseph — the chair of the Council’s education committee, who is herself a parent and former public school teacher — said the city should “speak to the science” before dropping the school mask mandate.

She said she’d like to see “universal vaccination, regular testing, upgrading the ventilation system in the schools – and also we have to follow the numbers” to show decreasing cases among children.

Tom Sheppard, a member of the Panel for Educational Policy parent advisory board for the city Department of Education, said he thought people’s fears of mask mandates harming children’s development were based on misinformation.

“They have taken an issue that applies to a very specific group of children with disabilities, and then they’ve converted that into this sort of widespread assertion that it affects everybody when it doesn’t,” he said.

“I don’t want to minimize just the fatigue that everyone has around this,” Sheppard added. “But that said, the fatigue around it cannot translate itself into policies that put people at risk.”

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Kim

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