NYC ends school mask mandate and many students are wary

A Queens kindergartener wasn’t quite ready to part with his Mickey Mouse masks. In Staten Island, another kindergartener had lost one of his lower teeth and was eager to show off his new smile.

And a high school student, Ella Chan, 17, in first grade at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, said she kept her mask on. “There really is no cure for Covid at this point,” she said. “There is too much uncertainty for me.”

Two years after the coronavirus pandemic gripped New York, Monday marked the city’s most aggressive move yet to get back to normal. Officials eliminated a school mask mandate that had been in place since fall 2020, a major step in the city’s recovery from a public health crisis that upended the lives of nearly a million students in the largest school system in the country.

It came the same day the city also suspended its requirement for proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms and other places of entertainment.

The moves underscore Mayor Eric Adams’ intensive efforts to revive the city and return its schools, businesses and street life to normal, a campaign he considers essential to reviving the pandemic-stricken city’s economy.

“We did our job as New Yorkers, and now we’re winning,” Adams said Monday in a television interview.

Although many business leaders, the teachers’ union and city health officials applauded the effort, some health experts and other elected officials raised concerns that it may be too soon to lift many restrictions, including around masks.

And across the city, students, parents and school employees all wondered if it was time for New York to come back to life before the pandemic or if another crushing setback was lurking around the corner.

In Staten Island, seven-year-old Emma Billera, a second-grader at Tottenville Public School 1, said taking off her mask made her “happy, so you can breathe.”

But at Nelson Mandela High School in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, LaShawn Farrell expected his daughter, a ninth grader who was not vaccinated, to keep her mask on.

“I don’t think taking the mask off right now is a safe thing,” Ms Farrell said, adding that she didn’t think vaccines were safe for her child.

Other major cities have also relaxed school mask mandates in recent weeks. Dallas and Houston have made masks optional in schools. Los Angeles County will end its school mask requirements after March 11, allowing school districts to set their own rules. But the city of Los Angeles will keep masks in place in its schools, the nation’s second-largest district.

Chicago school officials on Monday announced plans to lift the mask mandate for the nation’s third-largest school district starting March 14, angering its teachers’ union. New Jersey’s school mask mandate was also lifted on Monday.

And the Supreme Court on Monday rejected the latest effort by New York teachers to challenge the vaccine mandate.

In New York, children under 5 are still required to wear masks in daycare centers and preschools, which has angered some parents. A protest against the rule took place Monday in City Hall Park.

“My daughter was two years old when it started,” said Daniela Jampel, 38, who has three children: a 7-month-old, a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old. “She doesn’t even remember a moment before Covid – it’s inconceivable to her.”

“She deserves normality, and she deserves normality because everyone gets it,” Ms Jampel said.

The relaxation of pandemic rules marks an important milestone in New York, which was one of the early epicentres of the pandemic and where more than 39,900 people have died, according to a New York Times database.

Mr. Adams said on Monday that the city had taken a “very conservative approach” to removing restrictions, but cases were low enough now to do so.

“Covid no longer controls our lives,” Mr Adams said. “We are masters of our lives.”

Although the requirement for proof of vaccination has been removed for many indoor settings, it remains in place in some venues, including Broadway theaters.

Mr Adams said he would also eventually scrap the mask mandate for young children once he could be sure cases had not started to rise for older students.

He asked the parents to trust him. “We’re going to get there,” the mayor said.

City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said the decision on school masks was driven by data. “We are at a lower level of transmission than in the past and, almost equally important, vaccination levels are significantly higher than they were before,” he said.

An average of 555 people in New York have tested positive each day over the past week, compared to an average of 43,000 per day in early January at the height of Omicron’s surge. Deaths have fallen from nearly 130 a day in early January to eight a day.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said he hoped Monday would be remembered as a “mark day” for schools in the city.

“We have waited a long time to be in this position,” Mr Mulgrew said, adding that it would be important to continue to monitor the number of cases and adjust safety precautions if necessary.

In New Jersey, the governor gave districts the ability to set their own rules. Administrators in many major cities across the state — including Newark, Paterson and Trenton — still required students and staff to wear masks; other districts have adopted policies based on measures that will change as the virus infection rate fluctuates.

At Cranford High School in northern New Jersey, where masks were no longer required, the majority of teenagers who ran inside before the bell rang were unmasked. Some students wore them hung under their chin. Others approached the entrance hesitantly and seemed uncomfortable getting rid of a mask that, for some students, had become as much a social crutch as a safety precaution.

Vaccines have played a central role in New York City’s efforts to contain the virus, and officials have waged a relentless campaign to get people vaccinated. Seventy-eight percent of all residents are fully immunized.

Public schools with low vaccination rates tend to be in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates, but this is not always the case, and the differences between adult and child vaccination rates can be extreme.

In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, 86% of adults are fully immunized. But only 26% of children at one local school, PS 41, are fully immunized, and that rate drops to just 10% at another, PS 284.

Lorraine Harrigan, 36, told her daughter, Londyn Carroway, a freshman at PS 284 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to keep her mask on.

“I feel like they are rushing too quickly to remove the mask,” Ms Harrigan said.

But across town, 14-year-old Max Shimbo was one of the few students waiting for Stuyvesant High School’s doors to open without wearing a mask.

“I trust the people in the mayor’s office,” he said. “They know how many cases we’re getting and how many people are vaccinated, so I’m confident they made the right call.”

All students, families, staff and visitors must complete a medical screening form before entering a school building each day. And students returning to school after infections will have to wear masks for several days. Masks are also recommended for students and staff who have been exposed to the virus.

Monday was a strange day for some students who chose not to wear masks.

Dylan DeGaeta, a fifth-grade student at PS 1 in Tottenville on Staten Island, said he felt like he was breaking the rules because he got so used to wearing a mask.

“I felt like I was doing something wrong,” Mr. DeGaeta said.

Luciana DeRosa, 12, a sixth-grade student at nearby Independent School 34, was glad she hadn’t spent the whole day behind a mask.

“I loved it,” she said as she left school. “I can see everyone’s faces. It was normal.”

Sadef Ali Kully, Nate Schweber, Julianne McShane, Precious Fondren, Sean Piccoli, Tracey Tully, Sharon Otterman, Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Grace Ashford and Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting.

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