State lifts mask mandate, issues new guidance for schools

With mask-wearing now optional in schools across New York state, the Fayetteville-Manlius School District will continue to employ various safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including encouraging social distancing when feasible and promoting proper handwashing hygiene.

On March 1, the New York State Department of Health, in partnership with the state Education Department, issued new school guidance that removes the indoor masking requirement for schools and shifts the responsibility for managing COVID-19 exposures more onto individuals.

The guidance applies to all school-sanctioned events, including instructional periods, extracurricular activities, athletic events and performances. It also extends to when students and staff members are traveling on district transportation.

When all is said and done, the guidance simply stipulates three basic requirements—masks indoors are optional; individuals who return to school for days 6-10 following a positive COVID-19 result MUST wear masks; and the weekly testing requirement for employees who are not vaccinated remains in effect by executive order—along with a number of accompanying recommendations that are all designed to keep students in school as opposed to being in quarantine outside of school, Superintendent Craig J. Tice said.

Face masks

Effective March 2, wearing a mask indoors, including on district transportation, is optional for all F-M students, staff and visitors.

The district understands there are many reasons someone may choose to continue wearing a mask while at school, including medical reasons, protecting vulnerable family members and for increased personal safety. 

“It is imperative that all individuals feel comfortable while in our schools,” Tice said. “We will continue to promote a ‘mask positive’ environment so that those who wear masks—whether by choice, expectation or requirement—are not stigmatized, bullied or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable.”

There is no state requirement for students or staff members to disclose any medical conditions that may increase their risk of COVID-19, and individuals sharing a classroom or learning space with someone who is more at risk of COVID-19 are not required to wear masks routinely. Families with concerns regarding medically-fragile and complex situations are encouraged to contact their building principal and/or school nurse.

Social distancing

Under the former universal masking requirements, a “close contact” was defined as being less than three feet from a student who has tested positive for COVID-19 if both the infected student and exposed student(s) consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time. 

The exception allowing three feet of distance to determine exposure in schools does not apply to unmasked individuals; therefore, anyone within a six-foot radius of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 should be considered exposed.

The six-foot “zone of exposure” does not mean districts should rearrange their physical footprint or space students six feet apart, according to the state guidance.

At F-M, students have safely resumed some pre-COVID routines, including consuming lunch meals together by grade level in cafeterias. Previously, classes were spread out between classrooms and cafeterias so that students could adhere to six-foot social distancing measures. 

For the most part, students will continue to sit at individual desks during their lunch periods. Where spacing permits, students are able to choose either sitting at individual desks or reduced-capacity cafeteria tables. In all instances, students are expected to maintain three feet of physical distance from others during meal break periods.

COVID-19 exposures and masks

While the latest state guidance removes the universal mask requirement, the following health and safety protocols remain in place:

  • Regardless of vaccination status, if a student tests positive for COVID-19 they must isolate for a full five days. Students may return to school after day five if they are asymptomatic or if symptoms are resolving. For days 6-10 following a positive test, students are required to wear a mask in school, including on the school bus.
  • If a student has been exposed to COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status it is highly recommended they wear a mask for a full 10 days following that exposure.
  • State and local health officials continue to recommend testing for COVID-19 following a possible exposure. COVID-19 tests are available at school to anyone who wants one. If you need a test, please contact the main office of your student’s school.
  • Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home from school, regardless of vaccination status or recent infection, until tested and/or isolate for five days. If your student has symptoms and you aren’t sure what to do, or if you need a COVID-19 test kit, contact the main office of your student’s school. 

“This will come down to personal responsibility,” Tice said. “While we look forward to taking another step in safely returning to pre-COVID routines, we will remain vigilant and ask our students and staff members to do the same.”  

The district will continue to track positive COVID-19 test results, including at-home test results, and report those positive cases on the district website and to the New York State COVID-19 Report Card.

The return-to-school procedure following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis remains unchanged.

Mitigation measures

F-M will continue its efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This includes improving ventilation and air filtration in classrooms and shared spaces, practicing social distancing when feasible, promoting proper hand-washing hygiene, disinfecting and sanitation efforts, encouraging students and staff members to stay home from school when they are ill, moving instruction outdoors and opening classroom windows (weather-permitting) and providing access to free at-home COVID-19 test kits. Families in need of a kit may request one from the main office of their student’s school.

In partnership with Onondaga County, F-M will also continue to offer weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing in each of its schools, and families can still register their students to participate. The surveillance testing is conducted on Fridays and targets a random sample of the staff/student population. 

Tice said the district will adjust its mitigation efforts based on data reflected through the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Level tool, which breaks down COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations by county. The state guidance also indicates that state and county health departments may be more stringent and can reintroduce safety measures in the event that infection rates increase in a particular geographic area. 

The Onondaga County Health Department has indicated that it will be releasing additional information in the near future.

If there are additional updates to the district’s reopening plan, they will be shared with the community via SchoolMessenger and posted to the district website.