What to Know
- A letter addressed to the CDC on Friday requested that New York no longer require indoor mask wearing in schools and camps statewide regardless of vaccination status
- New York education officials sent a letter to districts on Sunday clarifying that any mask guidance would not be updated until the CDC responded to the state
- "No changes have been, or will be, made by the Executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter," the NYSED letter said
In an eleventh-hour notice to school districts across New York, state education officials on Sunday said masks would still be required during indoor instruction on Monday despite an announcement two days prior that signaled a major shift in policy for students and staff statewide.
The state's top doctor on Friday released a letter addressed to the head of the CDC requesting a change in mask policy. Dr. Howard Zucker said the state was prepared to eliminate its indoor mask requirement in schools and camps starting Monday, June 7, barring an objection from the agency.
In a letter distributed over the weekend, first reported by the Times Union, the New York State Department of Education clarified that Zucker's letter was a request for updated guidance for the state - guidance that has not come, yet.
"Therefore, schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice," the NYSED letter said. "No changes have been, or will be, made by the Executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter."
When reached by email Sunday, a Department of Health spokesperson directed NBC New York back to the Friday announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The CDC told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon that it recommends schools and childcare facilities continue to follow COVID-19 prevention strategies, such as consistent indoors mask use, for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.
“Current evidence demonstrates that consistent mask use indoors among people two and older who are not fully vaccinated, along with other preventive strategies, is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19,” Public Affairs Specialist Jade Fulce said in an email.
“The recommendation to continue with these prevention strategies is based on youth aged 12-15 not being able to be fully vaccinated before the end of the current school year and youth under 12 not yet being eligible for vaccinations,” she added. “Additionally, schools need time to make systems and policy adjustments.”
The release of the letter on Friday afternoon caught many school leaders and teachers unions by surprise.
“Announcing on a Friday afternoon that masks will now be optional for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools starting Monday — with only three weeks remaining in the school year — is whiplash-inducing news," New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said in a statement.
Pallotta urged school districts to evaluate "local conditions and connect with their educators and parents to decide the best course of action for protecting their school community.”
The changes to state guidance were pending CDC objections, which Zucker asked about in his letter to CDC Director Dr. Richelle Walensky.
"As we continue to work to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and balance reopening with safety, New York State strives for consistency across and between settings with similar risk levels and populations," the letter began.
"The current CDC guidance for K-12 schools recommends a requirement for 'consistent and correct use of well-fitting face masks with proper filtration by all students, teachers, and staff,'" it continued. "There is no distinction between mask wearing for indoor versus outdoor activities (except for a vague reference to sports) and it does not address vaccinated individuals."
The letter points out that current CDC guidance for youth camps only strongly encourages masks indoors for people who aren't fully vaccinated while people outdoors can ditch face coverings regardless of vaccination status. It also reiterates the latest CDC recommendations around masks for the fully vaccinated.
"As many camps take place on school grounds, both serve school-age children, and the end of the school year/start of the camp season both occur in June, New York State plans to align our school and camp mask guidance," Zucker writes. "If there is any data or science that you are aware of that contradicts moving forward with this approach, please let me know as soon as possible."
Rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are plummeting in New York, while vaccination rates are ticking up. Still, Zucker's letter to the CDC didn't cite any data about why New York is now reversing the mask mandates in schools.
New data released by the agency hours before Cuomo's announcement may raise some eyebrows.
While kids may not experience as severe outcomes from COVID-19 as their older and more vulnerable cohorts, new CDC data shows an alarming trend in adolescent hospitalizations: They increased in March and April after initially decreasing earlier in the year -- a fact that the head of the CDC says has her "deeply concerned."
"I am deeply concerned by the numbers of hospitalized adolescents and saddened to see the number of adolescents who required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation," Walensky said in a statement Friday.
"Much of this suffering can be prevented," Walensky added. "Until they are fully vaccinated, adolescents should continue to wear masks and take precautions when around other who are not vaccinated to protect themselves, and their family, friends, and community."
This story is developing.