OPINION

Essay/Phil Palmesano: 'We need to unmask our children'

N.Y. State Assemblyman Phil Palmesano

Gov. Cuomo and the state agencies he oversees have only provided confusion and chaos rather than clarity when it comes to children wearing masks in school. Last Friday, Health Commissioner Zucker wrote a letter to the CDC saying children in New York would not be mandated to wear masks if they did not provide updated guidance. Following this announcement, the state Education Department said children would not be allowed to unmask until the CDC said so. Within 48 hours, the Cuomo administration, health commissioner and state Education Department all contradicted each other. This was frustrating for children, parents, teachers and school administrators alike.

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano

Not only did these announcements show a shocking lack of communication between agencies, they showed a complete disregard for the science and lack of respect for our kids, parents and local communities. There has been no proof of community spread of COVID-19 in our schools. Children are being forced to wear masks in 90-degree weather, including in many schools with poor air conditioning systems. This is inexcusable and certainly not in the best interest, health and well-being of our children. These actions do not instill trust or demonstrate any credibility whatsoever to New Yorkers. This has been a troubling and continual pattern with this administration, issuing confusing and conflicting guidance throughout the past 15-plus months, often leaving our local schools and municipalities to deal with the fallout as they did with this fiasco. The fact that Gov. Cuomo said "there was no confusion" just shows how completely out of touch he is with our children, parents, schools and local communities. The time has come to unmask our kids at school, period. Minimally, for the remainder of the year, in addition to removing masks outdoors, children should be allowed multiple mask breaks and be able to remove their masks while sitting in a hot classroom for instruction, especially when separated by six feet.

Joe Rumsey, Superintendent of Bath Central School District, spoke with me and offered a firsthand account of the confusion superintendents and administrators have been subjected to statewide.

“The chain of events over this past weekend is only one example of the confusion schools have been operating under for the past 15 months. With less than one month remaining in the school year, Dr. Zucker releases his email directed to the CDC late Friday afternoon (6/4). The media outlets immediately publish the letter reporting that the state is dropping the mask mandate for schools effective the following Monday (6/7), directing parents and staff immediately toward the school to make sure we will follow this new directive. Multiple county health departments read the letter the same way and gave permission for schools to change procedures for Monday (6/7). Late Sunday afternoon (6/6), the state education department, upon consultation with the governor’s office, issues a statement that children are to continue to wear masks on the following day, reversing the message disseminated by many schools. Thankfully, school superintendents were checking emails on Sunday afternoon to make sure this message was sent out to the communities. Finally, the next day, Monday, June 7, Gov. Cuomo and Dr. Zucker held a midday press briefing to say this proposed change was only for outside. This is in complete opposition to Dr. Zucker’s letter and resulted in many angry parents, frustrated staff and confused students. And still, Gov. Cuomo has the audacity to say there was no confusion in schools. For over a year now, everyone in our schools has performed amazing feats to educate our students in remote, hybrid and full in-person learning formats. We are also the hub of our communities and relied upon to provide support to our families during this pandemic. Unfortunately, this latest breakdown in communication is only one example of the many times the schools have been the victims of confusion by the governor’s office and health department, and more importantly, actually creating a divide between schools and their communities. Our schools and communities deserve better,” said Rumsey.

The governor has lectured us for more than 15 months on "following the science." I implore him to follow the science that is coming out of his very own office. On Sunday, we learned the state positivity rate was 0.52%, and here in the Southern Tier we have consistently had one of the lowest rates statewide throughout the pandemic. Our vaccination rates continue to rise while our COVID infection rates continue to drop.

This confusion and chaos created by the administration on mask-wearing shows why we need to end the State Disaster Emergency in New York. That’s why I have joined my Assembly and Senate Republican colleagues in calling for the Legislature to terminate the state of emergency. A 0.52% positivity rate statewide is a far cry from an emergency. We are in recovery, not an emergency. The arbitrary and often politically-motivated directives coming out of the governor’s office for over a year need to end now. By terminating the emergency, we can finally restore trust, confidence and credibility with the people of New York. Enough is enough. It is time.

New York State Assemblyman Phil Palmesano represents the 132nd District, which includes Yates and Schuyler counties, and parts of Steuben, Seneca and Chemung counties.