It's back to school with backpacks, notebooks and fresh face masks for New York's students, faculty and staff following an official order from the state's Department of Health.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul had been firm on reimplementing the mask mandate in schools since taking officer earlier in the week, but official word from the state didn't come until late Friday. A spokesperson confirmed an official order requiring that students, faculty and staff for all grade levels wear face masks in both public and private schools.
"The Department has filed an emergency regulation requiring all students, faculty and staff of all public and private schools (P-12) in New York State to wear masks inside school buildings," the statement read. "Public and private schools/districts across the State have been notified by the Department."
The mask order had been expected to come by the end of Hochul's first week as the state's first female governor. The public safety measure comes at a time when children under the age of 12 have yet to get approval for a COVID-19 vaccine, and a nearly out of control variant makes up the majority of new cases.
In Jericho, Long Island, the fall semester began Thursday and students there and anyone who enters school buildings is required to wear their masks at all times. Masks aren't required for students eating lunch outside or for those who participate in outdoor sports, Superintendent Hank Grishman said.
Superintendents, school boards and teachers told Hochul over a Zoom call a few days before she took office that they wanted the mandate to happen, she said in interviews earlier in the week.
"They told me they want this to happen, they just want to cover. They want to be able to go back to their parents at a school board meeting and say this is a state mandate, we had to follow it," Hochul told NPR. "So, because they did have that they were the ones that were that front of all the criticism and I have no trouble, problem at all, assuming that responsibly. I'm going do that."
The governor added in an interview with NY1 on Thursday that she's also trying to find a way to make vaccination a requirement because she currently doesn't have that authority.
"Just like you have to have vaccinations to go off to kindergarten, no difference, except we're in the throes of a global pandemic that is just not abating," she said. She has yet to give any indication of what those might involve, but pledged to provide more details "soon."
A number of teachers and other workers in New York City and across the country have pushed back against masks and vaccines mandates, but as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, more local governments have started to implement the rules.
With the FDA's full approval of the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week, Hochul said "that excuse is gone" for those who were hesitant of the shots due to emergency use authorization.
New York City this week announced a mandatory vaccination policy for all school staff, with no way to opt out through frequent testing. It prompted a protest rally outside City Hall on Thursday.
In reaction to the divisiveness of mandates, Hochul said New York is "not going to be Florida."
"I mean, I'm a parent. This is a time of high anxiety for every mom and dad or anyone who sends kids to school, and I want to alleviate that by saying you know what, your child is going to be protected. We know masks work and then we'll work on getting the vaccinations are and we'll have done everything we possibly can to ensure that that environment is safe so kids can start learning again," Hochul said.
The leaders of groups representing teachers and superintendents have voiced support for universal masking in schools. New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said the union also supported Hochul’s move to require regular testing for unvaccinated staff, but said it is “critical that educators continue to have a voice in the implementation of vaccine requirements and other COVID policies at the local level.”
Over the next few weeks, Hochul said she wanted to spend time building out her senior staff, working with partners to devise new solutions to ongoing issues and traveling statewide to meet New Yorkers and "assure them I've got their backs."
She also plans to work with low vaccination rate communities to boost protection across the state.
After that, "All options are on the table -- and I will look at trends with healthcare and the CDC," Hochul said. "The answer is simple -- more vaccines -- and we will target to make it more widely available."
More than 12.8 million people (66.6%) in New York have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest data. It’s unclear what percentage of teachers, school personnel and state workers are vaccinated. But in New York City, about 37% of teachers are unvaccinated, the NYC Department of Education said Monday.
In New Jersey, 71% of those 12 or older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC. Nationally, that figure stands at about 60.7%.
Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here