What to Know
- Starting Monday, indoor masks will no longer be required for anyone in New York schools and camps statewide regardless of vaccination status pending any CDC objection, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says
- State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker has sent a letter to the CDC asking if the agency has any objections to the changed approach, which would take effect Monday irrespective of vaccination status
- Individual schools and camps would still be able to implement stricter standards if they so choose; NYC officials confirmed masks would still be required in schools
New York plans to eliminate its indoor mask requirement for students and adults in schools and camps statewide starting Monday barring any objection from the CDC, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
At that point, mask use will be strongly encouraged indoors but not required for students, campers and staff, teachers and counselors of any age, whether they are fully vaccinated or not. Outdoor masking is already only encouraged at this point for non-vaccinated campers and counselors in certain higher-risk circumstances, according to updated guidance for summer camps released by the state in May.
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Individual schools and camps will be permitted to implement stricter standards if they so choose, as was the case when Cuomo adopted the CDC's adjusted mask guidance for fully vaccinated people on New York's big reopening day last month. That includes New York City public schools, which said in a statement that they would continue to require masks.
"The health and safety of our students, educators and staff remain our top priority. Per State guidance, local districts may implement standards that make the most sense for their communities, as we are continuing with our universal mask policy at our schools," a city Department of Education spokesperson said later Friday.
Fully vaccinated students and staff of any age haven't needed to wear masks in any indoor or outdoor scenario since Cuomo adopted the latest CDC guidance. The anticipated guidance change would not affect current state rules around masking for non-vaccinated people in other places like subways, buses and airports.
The changes are pending any CDC objections, which New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker asked about in a letter to Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky dated Friday.
"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."
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
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.
The CDC didn't immediately respond to the letter early Friday afternoon, but the agency told The Associated Press 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.”
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."
The developments come as New York state and city shift their vaccine outreach focus to reaching those most recently eligible -- kids age 12 to 17 -- and as rising numbers of parents push to have even non-eligible kids lose masks in schools.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio debuted a first in-school vaccination pilot program at four Bronx schools Friday targeting those kids. He plans to roll it out across more boroughs in the coming weeks if it proves effective.
Both he and Cuomo have also launched a growing number of incentives targeting that age group as well as their parents, who must consent to vaccinations.
The mayor's office did not immediately responded to a request for comment on the state's planned guidance change Friday. This academic year for the one-time epicenter of the pandemic ends June 25, which would leave precious little time to overhaul mask rules citywide.
NYC Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said she was aware of the push to drop the mandate, since masks won't be required at summer camps.
"My viewpoint is, whatever's going to keep us healthy and safe. Do people want to be masked? No, they don't — but we will do whatever we have to do for safety and for that to happen," Porter said.
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.”
Both New York City and state are experiencing record lows in terms of new COVID cases and positivity rate in recent days. The state boasts a lowest-in-nation rolling positivity rate of 0.56%, one that is in the midst of a 60-day stretch of decline, according to Cuomo. Earlier this week, de Blasio said new cases in the city were down 95% since January, while the hospitalization rate was down 86%.
Both elected officials have credited vaccinations with the improvements.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here