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Students and staff in Riverhead Central School District must continue to wear masks until further notice pending additional guidance from state authorities, the district announced last night.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker in a letter to the CDC on Friday said, effective Monday, masks would no longer be mandated in schools and camps in New York State. Zucker said the decision would be left to local school districts, who, he said would be strongly encouraged to leave the mask mandate in place.

The announcement drew almost immediate pushback from New York’s largest teachers’ union, New York State United Teachers.

“Announcing on a Friday afternoon that masks will now be optional for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools starting Monday — with only three weeks remaining in the school year — is whiplash-inducing news,” said NYSUT president Andy Pallotta in a statement issued late Friday afternoon.

“Short of any additional guidance from the state or the CDC before Monday, we implore school districts to closely evaluate local conditions and connect with their educators and parents to decide the best course of action for protecting their school community,” Palotta said.

The Riverhead school district, which on Wednesday sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the health commissioner asking that the state “revisit” COVID regulations that apply only to schools, including mask requirements, on Saturday notified the school community that the district would make mask use optional for all students and staff in buildings and buses beginning Monday — unless the directive is changed by the state.

Last night, the district notified families and staff that the mask requirement would indeed remain in place today.

“This afternoon, the State Education Department issued a directive to school districts indicating that mask requirements must stay in place until additional information is provided by state authorities,” Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said in the notice.

“All students and staff must continue to wear masks tomorrow until further notice. As we experience summer-like weather, frequent mask breaks will be in place. If at any time this direction changes, I will keep you informed,” Tona said.

In the letter to Cuomo and Zucker on Wednesday, which was signed by Tona and school board president Laurie Downs, the Riverhead school district complained that while COVID transmission rates declined and vaccination rates increased, prompting modifications of restrictions on activities and mask requirements, “some restrictions on schools have remained stagnant.”

With the arrival of warmer weather, “the requirements for mask use in schools must be revisited,” Tona and Downs wrote.

They stopped short of asking that mask requirements be entirely eliminated for schools, but asked the state to “extended mask breaks while students are outdoors.”

The district is “handcuffed by unchanging regulations that only apply to schools,” they said.

“With the increase in warmer weather, coupled with not allowing for family choice regarding students wearing masks, some families have begun to keep their children home due to mounting health and safety concerns related to mask wearing in the heat,” the officials wrote. “This is in direct contradiction with our mutual goal of keeping students in-school, full-time.”

Continued mask requirements outdoors in hot weathers may also prevent families from taking advantage of summer programs aimed at closing gaps in academics and providing additional support due to the impact of the pandemic, the officials wrote.

Tona and Downs also sought easing of restrictions on outdoor gatherings they said are forcing the district to offer multiple graduation ceremonies. The only way the district can have one ceremony, even outdoors, where more than 500 people will gather is requiring all in attendance to present proof of recent COVID testing or vaccination, Tona and Downs wrote.

Current capacity limits “coupled with the requirement that outdoor attendance of more than 500 persons requires proof of recent COVID testing or vaccination,” is forcing the district to offer multiple graduation ceremonies, Tona and Downs said.

“Our high school seniors wish nothing more than to have one graduation ceremony where they can assemble one last time to celebrate their accomplishments,” they said.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor next year, ramped up political pressure on the state to “unmask our kids.” On Wednesday, joined by parents, he held a press conference in Hauppauge to demand that the governor lift mask restrictions in schools.

After the announcement of new guidance Friday afternoon that mask-wearing would no longer be mandated by the state, Zeldin claimed victory.

“We did it,” he said in a statement. “Honored to have led this fight to unmask our kids with so many passionate parents across New York fighting for their freedoms and their children. Today we won that fight,” he said

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.