Governor Kathy Hochul delivers an address to New Yorkers from the Red Room at the State Capitol. Courtesy photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul dove head-first into controversial waters on her first day in office with the announcement of a back-to school plan that includes a universal mask requirement in all schools, as well as pursuing options for a potential vaccine mandate for school employees, with a weekly testing requirement for staff who remain unvaccinated.

In a brief inaugural address yesterday afternoon, Hochul said fighting the delta variant is job one.

“My number-one priority is getting children back to school and protecting the environment so they can learn safely,” Hochul said.

“I am immediately directing the Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering our schools, and we are launching a Back to School COVID-19 testing program to make testing for students and staff widely available and convenient,” the governor said.

“We are also working to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly, and we are going to accomplish all of this by working in partnership with all levels of government.”

There is a sharp partisan divide over following public health authorities’ recommendations for policies on masks and vaccinations, with some Republican-led states enacting bans on local mask mandates and proof-of-vaccination protocols, despite the delta variant causing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the leading Republican candidate for governor in New York, wasted no time criticizing the governor’s announcement yesterday.

“Despite swearing up and down that she’s nothing like Cuomo, Kathy Hochul is picking up right where he left off…making bad decisions for New Yorkers,” Zeldin said in a tweet. He opposes mask requirements in schools as well as proof-of-vaccine protocols.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released this month, 69% of parents who identified as Republicans parents oppose schools requiring unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks at school. Sixty-three percent of all parents of children who attend school think their child’s school should impose such a requirement.

Children now represent 1 in 5 new COVID-19 infections

Children now account for more than one in five new COVID-19 infections in the U.S., according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, with over a four-fold increase the past month, rising from about 38,000 cases the week ending July 22 to 180,000 the past week,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said.

That number is the highest since the winter surge, according to the AAP report, issued weekly, which analyzes state-level data.

With the rise of the delta variant and colder weather approaching — meaning people will spend more time indoors — pediatricians are concerned things will get worse.

“At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children. However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects,” the AAP said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends universal masking in school as well as vaccinations for children ages 12 and up.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to reinstitute a mask requirement for vaccinated adults, as recommended by the CDC on July 27, and on Aug. 5 also declined to implement universal masking in schools.

The former governor said while he agreed with the CDC recommendations, absent legislation authorizing him to issue an executive order mandating masks in schools, the decision to implement a mask mandate had to be made by local health departments or school districts.

The Suffolk County health department recommended that school districts follow the CDC guidance but said the decision would remain with local boards of education.

Last week, on the recommendation of Riverhead School Superintendent Dr. Augustine Tornatore, the Riverhead Board of Education, in a split 4-3 vote, adopted a universal masking policy for its school reopening plan. The vote came after the board heard nearly two hours of comments from parents both supporting and opposing a universal masking policy.

Tornatore said yesterday he welcomes the new governor’s guidance.

“We need to ensure that students concentrate on learning instead of having to worry about being quarantined and having their education interrupted,” Tornatore said.

The New York State health department does not report age distribution of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases. However, the state health department does report the number of laboratory-confirmed cases in children ages 5-17 by school district.

According to the reported data, since Sept. 1, 2020, there have been 444 confirmed cases in 7,425 tests of children ages 5-17 living the Riverhead Central School District — a 6% test positivity rate. In the past 14 days, there have been 17 positives out of 217 tests of children ages 5-17 who live in the district, a test positivity rate of 7.8% — higher than the county’s 14-day rolling average of 4.1% as of Aug. 23.

The first day of school for Riverhead students begins next Thursday, Sep. 2.

Hochul announces new COVID-19 testing in schools initiative

The governor yesterday also announced the implementation of a testing program to make free COVID-19 testing readily available to all students and staff. Hochul said she will use $335 million in federal funds to launch a new COVID-19 school testing program in partnership with local health departments and BOCES in the state outside of New York City, which directly received $225 million from the federal government to initiate a COVID-19 testing in schools program.

The governor yesterday also announced the launch of an additional back-to-school COVID-19 testing program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rite Aid and BioReference to make testing more widely available for public school students before the start of the school year.

Testing appointments will be available to K-12 students at 115 Rite Aid drive-through locations, Hochul’s office said in a press release. The tests will be administered at no cost to families or school districts. Digital results will be delivered to parents for students to bring to school. Students aged 17 and under must have parental or legal guardian consent and be accompanied by a guardian at time of testing in the drive-through.

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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.