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Upstate Hospital doctors, experts urge school districts to require masks; State Education Dept. releases guidance to districts

Superintendent Jaime Alicea with Syracuse school students in 2020.
Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News file photo
Superintendent Jaime Alicea with Syracuse school students in 2020.

Experts in infectious disease and pediatrics at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse are urging local school districts to adopt a universal masking policy for children and staff when the school year commences next month. A letter has been sent to superintendents as they prepare for a new school year and wait for Onondaga County guidelines on the issue.

Christopher Morley, chair of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Upstate Medical University, said the science is clear, masking is a proven way to keep children safe from COVID-19, especially when they are indoors at school. He said there is abundant evidence that shows that.

"This isn’t about absolute vulnerability versus absolute protection, it’s about lowering the odds of being infected,” Morley said. “And wearing a mask as frequently as possible in high transmission events, like when you’re indoors, lowers the odds the virus will jump from person to person."

Morley was one of nine experts to send a letter to central New York school superintendents. It said the safe return to school must be coupled with universal masking, in order to keep schools open and avoid lengthy isolation or quarantine caused by the virus. The letter said a universal masking policy is crucial, especially in light of the fact that children under the age of 12 can’t receive the COVID vaccine.

Pediatrics professor Steven Blatt said the point of the letter is to offer the latest facts to school districts from experts who live in the community, and have been studying COVID for the past year and a half. He hopes district officials are open to the advice.

“They want to follow the science and best guidance as much as we do,” Blatt said. “But they have to know what it is. And you can’t spend your whole day running a school, and at night figuring out what the science is. It’s helpful to them for our local experts to provide them this information."

New York state is not offering any guidance to school districts about a masking policy, instead leaving it up to local educators to decide how to stem the spread of COVID-19. The Syracuse City School District has already announced a universal masking policy. Cayuga County is recommending districts adopt universal masking policies as well.

Meanwhile, state education officials Thursday released a COVID-19 reopening guide for school districts that were caught off guard when the state’s health commissioner said he would not issue safety recommendations.

The guide, meant to help districts develop their own plans, highlights recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including universal masking for students and staff regardless of whether they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, and the continuation of social distancing when possible.

“Reopening amidst a pandemic for the second consecutive year is truly a daunting task,” Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said in a statement. “Our hope is that this guide, coupled with the input of local health officials will help the state’s education community as they prepare for September.”

Numerous district leaders said they had been waiting for guidance from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration to finalize reopening plans, only to be told Aug. 5 they should proceed on their own.

“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools,” New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, recommending they follow guidance from the CDC and local health departments.

The statement, which came two days after the release of a damning report that found Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women, drew a rebuke from the State Education Department, which said the turmoil “should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the governor’s office for months.”

The guide released Thursday refers districts to CDC recommendations that schools maintain at least 3 feet (about 1 meter) of physical distance between students within classrooms, and at least 6 feet (about 2 meters) between students or staff who are not fully vaccinated.

It also notes recommendations for virus screening for athletes and chorus and band members, as well as in areas with high community transmission levels or low vaccination coverage.

The CDC no longer recommends temperature checks or quarantines for vaccinated people who have been exposed to the virus, unless they have symptoms, according to the guide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.