A group of parents and children gathered outside the Riverhead Central School District's office this afternoon for a protest against the district's decision to continue to require masks in all school buildings. Photo: Alek Lewis

Update: An appellate court judge late this afternoon ordered a stay of the Nassau Supreme Court judge’s order. See separate story.

School districts must still abide by New York State’s indoor mask mandate, pending the outcome of an appeal of yesterday’s court decision holding the state’s mandate rule was void, the State Education Department has informed school districts. 

NYSED sent a statement to school districts last night advising them to continue the mandate shortly before Attorney General Letitia James filed a notice of appeal.

“The Governor and State DOH have filed a Notice of Appeal and are seeking confirmation that the Court’s order is stayed. While these legal steps occur, it is NYSED’s position that schools should continue to follow the mask rule,” Education Department Spokesperson Emily DeSantis said.

Several school districts across Long Island told parents that masks would be optional. The Riverhead Central School District sent out a robocall last night advising families that masks would still be required in school buildings, per the State Education Department’s statement. 

One section of the state’s civil procedure law states an appeal by the state automatically stays enforcement of a court order. Other provisions and case law make the application of that section unclear in the present case.

There was an appellate court hearing on the state’s appeal this afternoon, Gov. Kathy Hochul said during a briefing in Syracuse today. She said the judge told attorneys to expect a decision later today or tomorrow. The governor did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, local parents are upset about Riverhead’s decision to keep the mask mandate in place. About 20 people gathered outside the school district’s office building this afternoon to protest.

“When my children heard [the ruling] they actually cried, because they’ve been so ridden with anxiety the entire time that they’ve been forced to wear masks. They were excited and happy to go to school today maskless,” said Monique Parsons, a parent of two in the district who also spoke against mask mandates last year. 

Parsons said students who went to school and refused to wear a mask this morning were “segregated” from other students and put in a conference room. Parsons said she and other parents have filed police reports in connection with the incident. Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said this afternoon there had been “two or three” reports filed today regarding the school district’s policy.

Parsons disagreed that the attorney general’s appeal stays enforcement of the court order. “We have a judicial process and checks and balances for a reason. And the Riverhead school district needs to start following the law,” she said.

School districts are able to impose and enforce their own rules without a state mandate. A divided Riverhead Board of Education passed a reopening plan that included a mask mandate in school buildings in a 4-3 vote last August, days before Hochul entered office and directed the mask mandates be required for school districts across the state. 

Mask mandates have been a subject of controversy in schools across the state and the country, and Riverhead is no exception. Several vocal parents and residents of the district have appeared before the Board of Education several times to oppose the mandates. In Riverhead, Board of Education Trustee Christopher Dorr asked the board to consider joining in on a similar lawsuit on behalf of school districts in Nassau County in September. 

Universal indoor masking in K-12 schools is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics in combination with other measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, primarily in people with asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. Masks, especially those with filters, also provide protection to people wearing them, according to the health officials.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is seeking the Republican nomination to face Gov. Kathy Hochul in November’s election, praised the judge’s ruling.

“Honored to have fought side by side with small business owners, parents, elected officials like Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and so many others in fighting for common sense, freedom, and the full science as opposed to just partial science,” Zeldin said in a statement.

There is currently nothing on tonight’s Board of Education meeting agenda acknowledging the mandates. Superintendent Augustine Tornatore did not return a call requesting comment on the protest and incidents connected to the mask mandate in Riverhead schools before this article was published.

-with Denise Civiletti

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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. Email: [email protected]