Nassau County leaves mask decisions to schools, giving KN95s to teachers

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NASSAU COUNTY, Long Island (WABC) -- Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman signed a number of executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, including several related to the wearing of face masks.

School boards will be able to decide whether their students will wear masks, and county workers will have the option whether or not to wear a mask inside.

He also made it official that the Nassau County Department of Health will not enforce state's indoor public space mask mandate or vaccine check.

Still, Blakeman said the county is taking an aggressive approach to fighting COVID.

"This aggressive approach must be balanced by keeping in mind the psychological and economic risks of every decision we make, as well as individuals' constitutional rights," he said.

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Blakeman announced county-wide at-home COVID test distribution, vaccine pods and KN95 mask distribution at schools.

Free tests will be given out at Eisenhower Park and Tobay Beach this weekend from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

He said 160,000 tests will be distributed, serving 13,000 cars per day.

A free vaccination pod will be located at Nassau Community College this weekend from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Finally, Blakeman said KN95 masks will be provided to all teachers so there is no excuse for not keeping schools open.

"Some teachers have indicated that they did not want to go and teach classes unless they had KN95 masks available," he said. "We are making those available. We want our kids in school."

Parent Catherine Gugliucci, of Old Brookville, applauded Blakeman's decision.

"No one is paying attention to the children all day long sitting in their desks and not having any facial recognition and emotions," she said. "It's so, so wrong. It's so severe to be doing this to our youngest generations."

Nassau County Department of Health Commissioner Larry Eisenstein said he agrees with Blakeman's executive order pertaining to schools.

"We've been saying all along that school districts have to do what's best for them," he said.

Eisenstein said Nassau County has a nearly 100% vaccination rate, and that two-thirds of the people in the county who are hospitalized as of Thursday are unvaccinated.

"For me, the single most important thing my department can focus on and put our efforts in is vaccinating anyone who wants it," Eisenstein said.

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The Massapequa School District, which previously sued the state over the mask mandate, also spoke out in support.

"The Massapequa Board of Education supports the executive order signed by Nassau County Executive Blakeman," Massapequa Board of Education President Kerry Wachter said. "As a Board, we have worked to regain local control of our schools and this is a positive step forward towards these efforts. As with all district policy, the Board must convene and implement any changes in a methodical way. To that goal, the Board will consult with our administrative team, legal counsel, community and staff to ensure that we institute a sound plan that supports the health and safety of our students and personnel."

Governor Kathy Hochul said on Thursday that state laws override any executive orders that Blakeman puts in place, but a spokesperson for Blakeman said in response that the county is proceeding forward with the executive orders.

Hochul had a message for school boards that may consider violating the New York State Health Department's mask mandates for schools.

"There's also the issue of the State Education Department, which has direct control over funding of schools," she said. "I hope I don't need to say anymore on that topic."

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa echoed Hochul.

"Under the authority of Public Health Law 206, the COVID-19 face-coverings regulation (10 NYCRR 2.60), and the Commissioner of Health's determinations dated August 26 and December 10, 2021, counties are required to enforce school masking regulations," she wrote in a statement. "The regulation, which applies to schools and many other sectors, requires local health departments to enforce school mask mandates (10 NYCRR 2.60). The Commissioner of Health can additionally direct the local health department to enforce the regulation under the Public Health Law. Counties do not have the legal authority to require boards of education to vote on specific issues. School officers take an oath to obey all legal requirements. The State Education Department expects school boards will follow all legal requirements, including the face-covering regulation."

Nassau County Democrats also slammed Blakeman's executive orders.

"The County Executive's new executive orders make one thing clear: He is choosing politics over public health and safety," said Jovanni Ortiz, of the South Shore Democrats. "Mr. Blakeman's decision to encourage school districts to no longer comply with the state's mask mandate is not only hazardous, but is going to further delay any chance we have of returning to normal. At a time when pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise, we should be discussing ways to try and get COVID under control, not making sure it is here to stay."

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta also spoke out against the orders.

"It's unbelievable that nearly two years into the pandemic, we have to debate the critical importance of mask wearing as part of a layered COVID-19 mitigation strategy in schools," he said. "Particularly given the current spike in cases, now is not the time to do away with mask wearing in schools. Public health experts have been unequivocally clear that masks are an important part of the strategies designed to keep students, educators and our communities safe. And the governor was clear this afternoon that state law prevails in this matter. We continue to support the state's mask guidance for schools and call on all districts to continue following these guidelines."

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