Local school districts ready for end of mask mandate

From left, William Hollander as Nick, Emma Wylie as Clarence, and Caleb Mihill as George Bailey perform in the Lake Placid High School production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” which was presented on Dec. 17 and 18, 2021. (Photo provided — Alicia Brandes)

Masks at local schools will become optional when classes start on Wednesday, March 2, following the lifting of the state mask mandate.

The state is now leaving the decision of whether to keep or drop the mask mandate up to county and city governments, but the state has also given individual school districts the choice of whether to require masks or not.

On Monday, both the Franklin and Essex county health departments decided to stop enforcing mask mandates for schools. The Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake school districts are all planning to drop their mask requirements in line with the county and state decisions.


Tri-Lakes school superintendents have heard a range of reactions to the news.

Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Timothy Seymour said there’s some elation, and some concern, as the mandate comes to an end.

“I think our hope is that this is really representative of the pandemic hopefully coming to a close,” he said. “So, in that sense, it’s hard not to have some degree of excitement, considering what we’ve all been through to date.”

Seymour said that some people might have reservations about taking off their masks at school, depending on the health risks of their loved ones. He added that schools having high-quality masks and test kits available for people who want to protect themselves and their children is “certainly a better place” to be in than where people started at the beginning of the pandemic, without masks or reliable testing.

Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox spent her Monday morning emailing back and forth with parents — some who were supportive of dropping the mask mandate, others who were concerned about its removal.

Based on that, Fox thinks that some students will stay masked, others won’t.

Some parents have been pushing for an end to the state’s mask mandate for some time, while others have viewed the mandate as a necessary tool to curb the spread of the virus in schools.

“We understand and empathize with both opinions,” Fox wrote in a letter to families. “We just ask that you discuss your family’s choice with your child so he/she understands the basis for your family’s decision.”

Fox said it won’t be all “sunshine and butterflies” with the mandate lifted. The personal decision will now cause social pressures to opt to wear masks or not. Fox said this will require some “grace” and she wants to make sure students don’t feel pressure to make one decision or another.

“Wearing a mask or not wearing a mask is an individual choice made without judgment by the district and its employees,” she wrote in an letter to families.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett said he’s interested to see how many students choose to keep their masks on. Some feel more comfortable wearing them, some have health risks that may influence their choice, and some don’t mind wearing masks.

He said he hasn’t heard students complain about masks, but he anticipates they’ll be happy to get back to normal.

“Kids dislike remote school a lot more than than they dislike masks,” Bartlett said. “They saw them as the avenue by which they were going to be in school in person.”

Bartlett also said education has probably suffered due to the constant pandemic distractions, but good teachers are still doing good things in classrooms every day. Most of what’s been lost has been planning for the future, he said, and he’s got catching up to do.

“I’m hearing a whole lot of relief,” Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES Public Information Specialist Jess Collier said. “We’ve been really good about following all the strict guidelines and we really haven’t seen much COVID being spread in schools at all … we’re really good about following rules in schools.”

She said with case numbers “sharply declining,” most educators she’s spoken to feel comfortable unmasking.

“Everyone was sort of feeling like it was time,” Collier said. “BOCES is excited about being able to see smiling faces in our hallways again.”

School transmission has been low

Superintendents have been tracking cases to see if there has been virus transmission at school. So far, they’ve seen low rates of transmission within schools.

Some students, teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, Bartlett said, but they haven’t been spreading it to their peers at school.

Fox said SLCSD determined that people in close contact with people who tested positive at school were no more likely to contract the virus than the general population.

Spread in the Lake Placid school district remained low, though Seymour said there was a spike at the beginning of this year when the omicron variant made its way through the area.

Schools have required masks and social distancing and have kept air flowing through classrooms with ventilation. Superintendents said there may be an increase in COVID-19 cases in schools because of the mask mandate lifting, but they’ll continue to keep close tabs on the virus.

Cases are predominately in congregate settings, according to FCPH Program Coordinator Sarah Granquist. Bartlett noted that schools famously have rough flu seasons.

The Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Tupper Lake school districts all plan to ramp up the number of at-home COVID-19 test kits they send out to families.

Franklin County remains at high risk

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that masks be worn indoors in areas with “high” risk of COVID-19 transmission. Franklin County is still deemed an area at “high” risk for transmission by the CDC.

Franklin County Public Health decided to still lift the in-school mask mandate, citing a downward trend in positivity and hospitalization rates in the area.

“Vaccination rates continue to increase; pediatric hospitalizations are low; community immunity continues; wastewater surveillance is occurring; the hospitals and healthcare system are stable and intact,” Granquist wrote in a press release.

Bartlett said he interpreted the CDC’s new guidance as telling leaders to focus on responding to positive cases more than taking preventative measures.

And the door is left open for individual districts to resume mask mandates if COVID goes “bonkers” again, threatening public health, he added.

Districts are like mini health departments, Bartlett said, with administrators keeping a close eye on cases, transmission and public health on their campuses. So he thinks that sets them up to be the best group to decide if there is a mask mandate in their buildings or not.

Fox pointed out that the vaccination rate is much higher in the southern end of Franklin County, where Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake are, than in the north. She said there’s been a recent “steep decline” of cases in her district.

Essex County is considered at a “medium” risk level by the CDC.

Vaccination rates

Vaccination rates among staff at schools are high, and sometimes hard to pin down exactly, according to superintendents.

Fox said vaccination among staff at SLCSD is above 90%. Student vaccination rates differ by age, but she said the high school vaccination rate is 78%.

Bartlett said the district has a “high” vaccination rate among staff.

Seymour said vaccination rates among staff are “very high,” around 94%, while student vaccination rates are more of a “moving target.” Seymour said that students who got vaccinated when they were first eligible for the shot have tended to maintain the most current level of vaccination possible, seeking second doses and boosters when eligible.

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