To mask or not to mask in schools? The debate continues in the Twin Tiers

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(WETM) – Many children, teachers, and staff are back in school full-time in the Twin Tiers. For many districts, this is the first time students will be in the classroom every weekday since the start of the COVID pandemic. While teachers and students open their books for the first time this fall, legislators and parents continued debating if they should wear masks.

Residents in both states are frustrated that COVID-19 school guidance came out in late August. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf announced the masking requirement on August 31, which was after many districts started their fall term. In New York, Gov. Hochul hinted at a masking policy prior to her taking office on August 24. Just days later, the New York Department of Health issued guidance and required masks. Northern Tier parents are now taking to the streets and protesting the mandates.

“I would just like us to be able to parent our own children,” Marissa Stevens, parent, told 18 News. “[I] 100 percent blame Wolf because he left it up to the schools and then reversed it as soon as he saw that the majority of schools were leaving it up to the parents, as it should have been.”

Representative Clint Owlett encourages Pennsylvanians to contact their local leaders, as they were called back into session early. From Harrisburg, he encouraged the protests because he believes parents should have an active role in these decisions.

“Parents need to be engaged in this process. The reason that I believe that it should be handled at the local level is that they have access and they can talk to school board members who [should be] making these decisions,” Rep. Owlett added.

In New York, Superintendents must follow New York Public Health law, which can be amended by the Health Commissioner. Earlier this year, executive powers were removed from the New York Governor’s office amid several scandals with former Gov. Cuomo. While district leaders have to follow health law despite their opinions or parents’ thoughts, they criticize the department’s timing, saying it was too close to the beginning of the academic year.

“If I was Dr. Zucker, a lot more beforehand and explained what was going on,” Dr. Thomas J. Douglas, Horseheads School District Superintendent, continued. “We are all for freedoms, but most importantly, we are here for the health and safety of our students.”

Teachers were also caught off guard, saying the shorter they have to adjust the harder it is to plan. Their primary goal is keeping students in-person and safe.

“Even though it came out at the late stages, I don’t think it was the wrong decision,” Dora Leland, Horseheads Intermediate teacher, said. “If we don’t have the masking in place and if we don’t hit that vaccination threshold, my fear is that we’re going to be back to where we were in the late fall of 2020, which was remote.”

The goal for all school districts, teachers, lawmakers, and parents alike is to continue educating future leaders while maintaining safety. The debate is how to achieve it.

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