BUFFALO, N.Y. – School districts across New York state, including many of the largest, made mask wearing optional for students and staff beginning Wednesday as a statewide mandate came to an end.
Districts in Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Albany were among those to stop requiring face coverings following Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul's decision to lift the statewide requirement, citing a dramatic drop in COVID-19 infections and new federal guidelines.
For many students, it marked their first time in a classroom without a mask since early 2020.
“Stress relieving,” 16-year-old Taneah Thomas, a high school junior in Buffalo, said after exiting South Park High School on Wednesday with a mix of masked and unmasked students after school. The last time she was mask-free was as a freshman.
Taneah did not cover her face Wednesday but wasn't quite ready to give up the habit entirely.
“I had it around my neck," she said. "I thought it was good because I could finally breathe better.”
In New York City, which has the nation’s largest school district, an indoor mask mandate is expected to be lifted Monday. Democratic Mayor Eric Adams says he plans to make a final decision on Friday after evaluating the latest case numbers and other statistics.
“Our assumption is that based upon the numbers that we have so far, we’re going to be good to go for Monday, where we follow the state guidelines which allows folks to take the mask off,” New York City schools Chancellor David Banks told reporters on Wednesday.
The state Health Department said schools should continue to encourage social distancing, vaccines and testing, but in removing its recommendation for universal masking it calmed one of the pandemic's most contentious issues that has been the subject of frequent protests and lawsuits.
Buffalo attorney James Ostrowski said that despite the change, he would continue to pursue the legal action filed against the state and several school districts on behalf of 24 families opposed to the mandate, with the goal of securing damages and a permanent ban on mask requirements by government officials in the future.
“This lawsuit will continue and most likely will grow by the addition of new plaintiffs whose children have suffered under this legal mandate for the last two years,” Ostrowski said at a press conference Monday.
New guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most Americans can now safely take a break from wearing masks, including students in schools.
The New York Health Department's guidance allows local health departments to implement stricter mask rules than the state and encourages them to collaborate with school districts on decisions. Masks are still required for 10 days following a COVID-19 infection, and are recommended for 10 days for people who have been exposed to an infected person.
Yonkers school administrators said that while masks were no longer required, students and staff were encouraged to wear them through the end of the week to mitigate the spread of exposure following last week's winter break.
“We do not want an increase in this number of positive cases which may force us to wear masks again or possibly need to quarantine classes,” the district said on its website.
In New York City, Banks said he would let decisions about voluntatily wearing a mask up to staff and the nearly 940,000 students, even if they're no longer required to do so.
“That decision will be made by parents and their families. They don’t need a recommendation from me," Banks said. "This is not new. They have been dealing with this for a long, long time.”
In Buffalo, special education teacher Matthew Olson said he was happy to see that many students, like him, chose to continue to mask up in South Park High School.
“I was surprised at how many kids continued to wear it," he said, "because I’ll most likely be the last person to take it off.”
Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed from New York.