Trustee Christopher Dorr at a school board meeting in October 2020, where he opposed the purchase of plastic barriers for K-4 classrooms. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Central School District Trustee Christopher Dorr and members of the community are urging the district to support a lawsuit against the State Department of Health’s indoor mask mandate for schools.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 10 by the Massapequa and Locust Valley school districts in Nassau County, argues that the mandate exceeded the governor’s and the health department’s authority and that prolonged masking is harmful to to children and has inconclusive scientific benefit, Newsday reported

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal indoor masking in K-12 schools, in combination with other measures, to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by people with pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic infection. Masks also provides protection to people wearing them, according to the health officials.

The Riverhead school district adopted a reopening plan last month that follows the CDC recommendations before the governor’s mandate. Dorr, along with trustees Therese Zuhoski and Brian Connelly, opposed the plan, which was adopted in a 4-3 vote.

“Even though from our reopening plans I don’t think we have the votes to do it,” Dorr said of the district becoming a plaintiff in the lawsuit, “instead, is it possible to write a letter to those school districts stating our support?” he asked.

“We wrote a letter to the state asking for masks to be optional last year,” Dorr noted. “We should be able to write a letter supporting these school districts in their fight against this unlawful mask mandate,” he said.

“Yes, Mr. Dorr, the board did put out a letter at the end of the school year because the [coronavirus case] numbers were low and we were told the kids can come back without masks, and that’s why we supported it,” school board President Laurie Downs replied, regarding the board’s June 15 letter to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “However, things have changed, as you well know, and we mandated the mask.” 

Downs said the board would discuss whether to write the letter Dorr requested and would do so at its next meeting on Oct. 12 because Connelly was absent Tuesday.

Monique Parsons speaks out against masks in schools at the Aug. 31 Riverhead Board of Education Meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Monique Parsons, who spoke against the mask mandate during a previous board meeting, submitted a letter to the board on the letterhead of a group called Save Our Schools-Riverhead, urging the school district to join the lawsuit against the state.

“This legal action is instrumental to protecting the rights and local authority of parents, school boards, taxpayers, and more,” Parsons wrote. “This legal action is not a mask vs. un-mask lawsuit. This is about constitutional rights.”

In the letter, Parsons complained that section 2.60 of New York State Sanitary Code (Title 10 of the New York Code of Rules and Regulations) “will remove all authority from duly elected school boards.”

The section, adopted as an emergency rule by the State Health Department on Aug. 27, authorizes the State Commissioner of Health to require everyone over age 2 to wear a face-covering or mask in a public place when they can’t maintain social distance and in “certain settings,” including schools. On that day, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker issued a determination of necessity and directed face-coverings be worn in certain settings, including schools, health care facilities and public transportation.

“Moving forward, schools will now be required to accept any mandate that is premised on this regulation,” Parsons wrote, calling the rule “illegal.” She said it was adopted by the Department of Health “unilaterally ignoring its own mandated procedure, with no legislative authority, under the guise of a public emergency.”

Normally, regulations are adopted in a process that includes publication of a proposed rule in the State Register and a public comment period before the new rule takes effect. However, the State Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the rule-making process for all state agencies, empowers the agencies to adopt emergency regulations if the immediate adoption is “necessary for the preservation of the public health, safety or general welfare.” The State Sanitary Code is a body of regulations made pursuant to the State Public Health Law. Both the Public Health Law and the Administrative Procedure Act are laws enacted by the State Legislature.

Parsons’ letter alleges, “A circle of Superintendents is working against the interests of our communities and democracy.” She urged the board to “maintain your elected autonomy” and follow suit with the boards of the Massapequa and Locust Valley districts who are, she wrote, “leading the charge against this unconstitutional and undemocratic regulation.”

Parsons urged the school board to contact the Melville law firm representing the Massapequa and Locust Valley school districts “post haste” for a free consultation. She said it is the board’s “duty” to “hear what is being proposed” and demanded the board hold “an emergency session to give this issue the priority it demands.”

“Our outreach is island wide,” Parsons wrote. “All school district leadership is being called to action.” She asked for a response by the next business day. “Ignoring this communication will constitute a dereliction of your duties and a violation of your oath of office.”

Parsons, the mother of two children in district schools, made an unsuccessful run for a school board seat in May, placing fifth in a field of six candidates vying for two open seats on the board.

Save Our Schools acts as “a type of watchdog to prevent corruption, mismanagement, and misleading curriculum from taking over school districts,” according to its website. It “stands against unfounded or harmful theories, curriculum, and organizations that push identity politics, targets certain groups, or promotes discrimination in any way,” the site says. It encourages parents to organize and “take action quickly” if “harmful propaganda curriculum” is in their school district. “Harmful propaganda curriculum” includes, according to the SOS website, “Critical Race Theory (a.k.a. Culturally Responsive Teaching,” which it describes as “a tool of Marxism that divides students and creates an oppressed/oppressor society.” It also lists “Social Emotional Learning,” which it says “started out as a good idea to prevent bullying, but …is being used callously to manipulate children’s emotions.” It also lists “Diversity & Inclusion Lessons” which “intends to do the opposite of what it claims,” according to the website.

The website does not list an office location, phone number or mailing address for the group, though some of its pages reference Smithtown and Smithtown schools. The site does not disclose the names of the group’s officers. The site states that the group is not affiliated with any organizations and has not received any financial support or contributions from any organizations. “We rely on parent information, news articles, legal FOIL documents, and Freedom of Speech,” it says.

When asked for more information on Save Our Schools, Parsons referred RiverheadLOCAL to the group’s website and email address. Save Our Schools did not respond to an email seeking a phone interview.

Other community members said Tuesday they were not happy that more conversations surrounding the mask mandate are still going on.

“We already had a vote prior to the state making a mask mandate, ” Alison Matway of Wading River said. “And now we get one of the minority, who doesn’t care to protect our children, getting you all to vote to participate in a sham lawsuit that will cost my tax dollars,” Matway said, referring to Dorr, “just to fulfill preaching to his people.”

-Denise Civiletti contributed to this story

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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.