The newly elected Port Washington Board of Education held a special meeting on July 14 to render a decision regarding mask wearing for their summer school programs, which are in session until the end of August.
The New York State Department of Health recently updated their guidance on masks during summer programs.
“When we started the summer we were under a mandate that all students had to wear masks in summer school,” Howard Miller, the schools attorney, said. “Then on July 7, an email came out from the Department of Health and it changed things. It said that although masks are strongly recommended and encouraged there is no longer a requirement that students wear masks except on school buses. Unvaccinated staff, however, do need to wear masks under this updated guidance. The state has now left it up to local school boards and superintendents to decide what to do and what is best for their community. Interestingly it said that it did not have to be done after a public meeting, but this board decided to have this discussion in public. It is again just for the summer, we anticipate that the state will give new guidance for the fall.”
The meeting was then opened to comments from the public before the discussion by the board was held. Several parents spoke up both in opposition and in favor of wearing masks during the summer programs.
One parent who is a physician, spoke on behalf of 11 other physicians in the area, voicing their concerns regarding changing mask protocols in the schools, particularity for those children who are under the age of 12 and cannot get vaccinated.
“All of us physicians personally have seen first hand the devastation that COVID has brought to our community,” she said. “Overall, maintaining the safety of all students and staff so that they are able to stay in school for the upcoming summer session and the school year, really requires a combination of strategies including but not limited to masks, vaccination, improved ventilation, social distancing and surveillance testing. We are very concerned that if masks become optional in schools that there is a significant possibility of in-classroom spread, which we fortunately didn’t see. Masks are a critical part of trying to ensure that children, teachers and staff are able to continue in-person learning.”
Other parents felt that masks made it more difficult for the children to learn, especially those with special needs or sensory issues. Several other community members urged the board to be careful about the decision that they make, stating that this resolution would set a precedence for the upcoming school year.
After the Board of Education held a lengthy discussion as a group regarding the ramifications of adopting this new guidance, they ultimately decided to take a vote on the matter.
In a vote of four in favor and two opposed, the Board of Education ultimately decided to adopt the New York State guidance on mask wearing. Nanette Melkonian abstained from the vote, stating that she doesn’t feel the Board of Education should be making such important public health decisions.
“The board hereby adopts the guidance of the New York Department of Health for summer school in 2021,” Board of Education president Emily Beys read. “Unvaccinated students and vaccinated staff are strongly encouraged, but not required to wear face coverings indoors. Unvaccinated individuals must wear face coverings on school buses. Unvaccinated staff must wear face coverings indoors and face coverings are not required for outdoor activities.”
The meeting was then reopened to public comment. Several community members spoke stated their opinions regarding the school board having to be the entity that makes this decision rather than the state.
One resident stated that he doesn’t envy the board of education for having to make such important decisions regarding mask wearing in the schools.
“I think it was really unfair to have dumped this on the local boards of education—such a monumental decision,” he said. “This is something that should have come from the State or at least from Nassau County. I don’t envy you having to make this decision.”
Another resident disagreed, stating that local boards of education are better suited to make these decisions based on their school districts specific needs.
“You absolutely do want control over this,” the resident stated. “You don’t want the state dictating what you have to do if for no other reason, assume that you know what the needs of Port Washington are better than the State does. Consider the fact that there is no one size fits all solution. Take ownership of this, do a little research if you have to. This is your school district, you know these people better than anyone else in the state.”
The board also requested that the administration provide various options that the district would consider regarding mask wearing in the fall so that they can consider those different scenarios at their next meeting.
The Board of Education will hold their next meeting on Aug. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Schreiber High School Library. A virtual livestream and recording of the meetings are also available on Youtube @Port Washington UFSD.