Photo: Adobe Stock

(Updated: Aug. 18, 12:07 p.m. ) Students in Riverhead public schools will be wearing masks when they return to school next month.

A divided Riverhead Board of Education voted to approve a reopening plan that includes a mask mandate for students, teachers and staff.

School Superintendent Dr. Augustine Tornatore developed the reopening plan and presented it to the board after members listened to public comments for nearly two hours.

The plan was made taking into account all of the available recommendations and guidance distributed by the Suffolk County Department of Health and New York state Department of Education, Tornatore said. The positivity rate in Riverhead is higher than in Long Island in general and the vaccination rate is lower here, Tornatore said.

Tornatore referenced schools in other states that have had to close down in the past few weeks after opening due to the delta variant of the virus causing a surge of infections in students.

“It’s not that I’m happy about this decision,” the superintendent said. “But as superintendent of schools, I had to make a decision that I thought would protect the students.”

He said the district will make masks optional as soon as it is safe, in consultation with the Suffolk County Department of Health.

“I respect everybody’s individual beliefs. I am obligated to protect the students in the community and at this time I feel it’s the best way,” Tornatore said.

The board voted 4-3 to approve the superintendent’s plan. Trustees Laurie Downs, Matthew Wallace, Virginia Healy and Colin Palmer voted yes and trustees Christopher Dorr, Therese Zuhoski and Brian Connelly voted no.

Trustees Therese Zuhoski, Christopher Dorr and Brian Connelly voted against the superintendent’s reopening plan. Photo: Alek Lewis

The trustees all thanked Tornatore for the effort he put into developing the reopening plan.

“Thank you for the plan,” Healy said. “A lot of superintendents didn’t make a plan,” she said.

The school board heard from numerous speakers on both sides of the controversial topic of whether to adopt a universal masking policy for the start of the school year before the vote was taken. About 50 people were in attendance. Those who spoke at the meeting included community members, parents, teachers and one student. The board also received about 30 comments online, which were read aloud by the district clerk. 

Audience members cheered and applauded those making statements they agreed with, while heckling those with differing opinions.

Conservative groups on Long Island against mask mandates urged members to go to school board meetings in opposition, RiverheadLOCAL reported Monday. One such group, Riverhead Parents for Liberty, said they were not against masks, but for “parents’ choice” to mask children in schools. Such an argument was common when people against the mandates were presenting to the board and was the reasoning that Dorr, Zuhoski and Connelly cited for their vote against the recommendation.

Megan Howard of Aquebogue said the decision to have a child wear a mask or not should be left to the child’s parents.
Photo: Alek Lewis

“It’s our duty and utmost responsibility as parents to make decisions based on our children’s best interests,” Aquebogue resident Megan Howard said. “My child is not your child and your child is not mine. I do not expect to tell you how to raise or protect your child and I do not welcome anyone telling me how to raise or protect mine.”

Parents supporting a mask mandate said that the safety of staff and children should be a priority and  that the mandate would be in the best interest to prevent the spread of the Delta variant of the virus, especially as reports of school shutdowns because of outbreaks are appearing throughout the country.

Recent reports in states with surges because of the delta variant suggest more kids are becoming sick with COVID-19 — and more severely ill —  than before the delta variant arrived in the United States. Health officials and hospital administrators in hard-hit states have seen a spike of pediatric hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

When Tornatore announced his recommendations to the board, audience members in favor of the mandate cheered, while many audience members against the mandate left the room in disappointment and anger. 

“Sheep,” one person yelled while they exited.

Some people against the mandate claimed that masks simply do not prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This is not true, according to the CDC and public health experts. 

Masks are intended to be worn in combination with other measures to mitigate the spread of respiratory viruses like the coronavirus. They are intended to prevent the spread of the virus in people with pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic infection — or those who are unaware they are infected. The group is estimated to account for more than 50% of the virus’ transmission.

“What my child does and what my child puts on their face is my responsibility and my decision,” Jeremy Rand, a Flanders resident with two children attending the school, said before the decision. 

Rand threatened to remove his children from the school district if the mandates were put in place. 

Parents against the mandate were also concerned that mask wearing would interfere with their child’s education, and social and emotional learning. Little is known about the psychological effects of mask wearing, although some behavioral health experts suggest that wearing masks could have effects on facial recognition and speech skills in young kids.

“Do any of you know what type of psychological damage we do to our children by forcing them to cover their faces,” said Bill Hedges, a retired Riverhead physical education teacher and sports coach. He called mask mandates “child abuse,” which got a loud applause from the room’s crowd.

They also said that masks can become dirty, trap bacteria and cause their children to get sick. The CDC recommends people throw away disposable masks after use and wash reusable masks daily or when they get dirty.   

Also used as an argument by the opponents of the mask mandates was the claim that masks cause an obstruction in breathing, and cause other symptoms like headaches. Although smaller symptoms like headaches have been recorded by scientists, research supports that mask wearing has no significant adverse health effects for wearers, according to the CDC.

Larrin Gerard, a parent from Aquebogue who works as a nurse in behavioral health, called the claims of masks obstructing breathing “pure psychosis.”

“You are not breathing in your own carbon dioxide all day, if I was, I would be on the floor — I work three 12-hour shifts in a row and I’m wearing my mask all day long,” she said.

“Any school and community setting you’ve ever been to, you have to show that your child is vaccinated. You have to meet the health requirements to attend any school and right now we are in an unprecedented circumstance in having a pandemic that is still ongoing,” Garard said.

Opponents also pushed against the mandates by mentioning that the virus is not particularly deadly to children. Although children have been less likely to develop severe illness and die from the virus, there is early data to suggest they can develop long-term chronic symptoms

James Scudder, a parent from Aquebogue who works as a teacher, attacked the argument made based on low death rates.

“Someone came up earlier and they said how it was .008 of young people who died. That’s a small sliver, unless that child is yours,” Scudder said. “If that child is yours, you don’t care if a million kids recovered from COVID, you care about your child.”

Scudder also quoted Riverhead’s district policies that say the board is responsible for “providing all students a safe and healthy school environment.”

“Your job is not just to teach my kids and all the other kids math, science, reading, it’s also to make sure they are safe within good reason,” Scudder said.

With no vaccine against the virus approved by the Food and Drug Administration for people under 12 years old, children are left vulnerable to becoming sick and continuing to spread the virus. Experts warn that if the virus continues to spread, the mutations may harm the effectiveness of the vaccine and prolong the pandemic. 

Also speaking at the meeting was Greg Fischer, a former school board and political candidate, who promoted a book which he said advocates for a treatment of COVID-19 with vitamins. He said he has worked with a doctors group, the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, on treatment of the disease. The group advocates for the use of an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin to treat COVID-19, despite the fact that the drug does not have an FDA approval to treat the illness.

Riverhead student Lucien Heilman expressed concerns about having to go back to online or hybrid learning if students contract COVID-19. Photo: Alek Lewis

People for the mask mandate said if the safety measure was not put in place, an outbreak of the coronavirus in the school may happen and students would have to go back to online or hybrid learning, something they said they would rather avoid. 

“I’ve spent the last year in the half restricted by COVID learning-wise,” said Lucien Heilman, a Riverhead student. “I’ve spent plenty of time at home behind a screen learning and the last thing that I want is to spend any more time there. “

“So all that I’d like to do is to be able to go to school in-person and if that means that I have to wear a mask and that everybody has to wear a mask that’s what it means,” Heilman said.

Support local journalism.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

SHARE
Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.