New York will no longer require students and educators to wear masks in schools starting March 2, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday.
The reversal of the state’s mandate — weeks after a similar mandate was rolled back for businesses — is a milestone in New York’s two-year struggle against the coronavirus, and a mostly welcome sign of the virus’s retreat.
“My friends, the day has come,” Ms. Hochul said on Sunday, reiterating that the decision came in consultation with public health and education officials, and that individual counties would be free to impose more restrictive measures as they saw fit.
The decision came as New York announced a statewide seven-day average positivity rate below two percent, and hospitalizations under 2,000 for the first time since before the Omicron surge. The drop is part of a national decrease in coronavirus cases. Across the state, hospitals that were forced to limit elective procedures as a result of the virus have been approved to resume normal operations.
The announcement on schools seems poised to end a bitter and divisive chapter in the pandemic’s history. Schools have increasingly become battlegrounds in a polarized national conversation between teachers, parents, students and politicians over what measures are appropriate to defend against the virus.
New York has been under pressure to roll back the state’s rules on masking in schools since Ms. Hochul allowed the mandate for businesses to elapse earlier this month. At the time, the governor promised to revisit the question of masks in schools after students returned from their midwinter break in early March, but officials found themselves under increased pressure after neighboring democratic states, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware, announced plans to lift the mandate.
Then on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington released new guidance that masks and social distancing were only necessary in areas where infection risk was high, clearing the way for the lifting of most virus measures, including masking in schools.
The announcement came as the agency shifted its strategy in assessing risk from one based on case counts to one that weighs the stress on hospitals by coronavirus patients, as well as new cases per 100,000 people over the previous week. Today’s announcement is expected to be celebrated by many across the state. Republicans have made the removal of masks in schools a rallying cry, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams has made clear his desire to end the mandate as soon as it is safe to do so.
A recent poll from the Siena College Research Institute, however, found that 58 percent of New York registered voters believed the state should hold off on lifting the mask mandate in schools until reviewing data from early March. That same poll, which was taken two weeks ago, found that 45 percent of respondents disapproved of the state’s rollback of mask mandates in private businesses.
The state’s ability to impose such mandates is the subject of a lawsuit pending in state court. Last month, Nassau County Justice Thomas Rademaker struck down the mask mandate as unconstitutional. New York State Attorney General Letitia James immediately filed to appeal the ruling, and the mandate was restored pending the outcome of the appeal. That case, which is considered a test of the state’s power, is expected to continue regardless of Ms. Hochul’s decision.