Donna Loh does not have to feel alone anymore. The Manhasset parent, at the Manhasset School District Board of Education meetings of Aug. 26 and Sept. 9, criticized the state-imposed mask mandate. But she was a lone voice. On Sept. 21, her dissent found supporters.
During public comment, the board heard from residents who felt it should not go along with the state regulation that all students must be masked in the classroom. Further, it should take advantage of free legal advice on fighting the state.
Trish Fessi said she was a parent of a fifth- and a seventh-grader in the district and a lifelong resident of Manhasset.
She stated, “Last Monday, September 13, a group of concerned parents sent a letter to the board of education informing them of a lawsuit filed by the Massapequa and Locust Valley boards of education regarding their constitutional rights. The legal counsels of those two schools have offered a free consultation to Long Island school boards about their educational rights. We haven’t heard back from the board. We hope to hear back from you soon. Many people in town feel the board of education should stand up for our children [and against] these mandates. We are looking for an option.”
She added, “I understand the reasoning and why kids are wearing the mask all the time,” and asserted that “we should look at the [infection] numbers in Manhasset, not Nassau County. It’s a day by day thing.”
Last month, the Massapequa and Locust Valley districts sued the governor, the Department of Health and then-Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who has resigned.
Fessi hoped there would be “an option for our children, as many of our children are not happy. They are just doing what they are told.”
Board President Pat Aitken replied, “We’ve had informal discussions about [masks]. First of all, we do understand that there are members of the community who do have that position and feel strongly about that. But I think also in terms of where the board was in early August or even mid-summer, even before new Governor [Kathy] Hochul had made her pronouncement [on mask wearing], the board already had a consensus, and was supportive of masking.”
She continued, “So at this point in time to devote financial resources to support a suit isn’t necessarily consistent with what the majority of our community sentiment is. It doesn’t mean that we are not watching or listening. Right now it’s been just those two districts and no one else has really joined, so we’ll kind of watch and see what happens.”
The state, on Aug. 18, had given school districts discretion over mask regulations. But after Hochul succeeded Andrew Cuomo she reversed course and directed the state’s Department of Health to mandate masks in all schools, public or private.
A statement from the Massapequa district declared, “The lawsuit demonstrates that neither the Health Commissioner, nor the new Governor, Kathy Hochul, have the power to establish a statewide mask mandate policy as an emergency health measure, that such authority resides only with the Legislature; otherwise, it is a matter for local control.”
There are consequences to not following the directives, as state Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa warned in a letter to the Locust Valley board: “School officers take an oath to obey all legal requirements, not just those which they deem expedient. If the law is not followed, it could result in removal from board positions and a withholding of state aid.”
Aitken commented of a potential lawsuit by Manhasset, “At this point, it doesn’t appear consistent with representing the broader community. We also typically have not taken political stances and have always encouraged people to reach out to their political representatives—you can do that.”
She admitted it was not a formal position, but indicated the board would not commit the district’s resources to finance a lawsuit.
“We have a lot of other things on our plate right now,” Aitken said.
Trustee Erin Royce said, “We’re trying to understand these lawsuits better. Unfortunately, the scheduling did not allow us to meet as a group to discuss that.”
Aitken said she had a quick conversation with the general counsel, “and the view is this is not going to be a quick decision. Whatever side loses is likely going to appeal, so it’s going to be a lengthy process.”
She said she understands why the districts are suing. The sentiments of the suit represent what she called “the mainstay of their communities. We understand that.”
Monica Newman said, “The parents’ letter is not asking for you to file any lawsuit, but to take advantage of a free consultation.”
Aitken pushed back when Newman claimed the board voted unanimously to mandate masks.
“We supported it, we didn’t vote,” the president pointed out. “It wasn’t a motion, but we discussed it. It was our unanimous position on that.”
Kristen Denihan said she had three children attending Manhasset schools, and one child who graduated.
“My question is, how did you know [what] the vast majority of our community [wants]? I haven’t [seen a survey],” she said. “This isn’t a mask versus mask, this is like, what is the vast majority and how did you find it?”
Aitken replied, “We hear from people, people come to meetings, they contact the board. We get emails, so we get a sense of what people’s positions are. People also talk to us individually. This community is not shy. After going through 18 months of COVID we can have a sense of where the community is on it. And that’s really where it is. We had said [mask wearing] was not something that we would take a survey on because this is a health and safety thing. We looked at it through the eyes of health and safety. I think we look to the [state] Department of Health when making those decisions. None of us is a health professional.”
Tara Kirkwood, mother of four said, “The letter is being a little bit misrepresented. It’s not a mask versus no mask. It’s not a vaccine versus no vaccine.”
She went on to cite state codes and regulations that contrary to the law, she claimed, “will remove all authority from the duly elected school boards. Moving forward, schools will now be required to accept any mandate that is premised on this regulation. The process of writing, amending and appealing policy is overwritten under this regulation. Amazingly, the Department of Health repealed and revised the regulation by unilaterally ignoring its own mandated procedure with no legislative oversight under the guise of a public emergency.
As a result of this illegal action all stakeholders will fall under the jurisdiction of an unchecked authority, because that health board is unelected, to adhere to any mandate the Department of Health sees fit. Moreover, as Department of Health officials are not elected, the public has no recourse to free itself from these mandates.
Kirkwood concluded, “So the reason we would like you to speak to these lawyers because it’s getting kind of grouped to a mask-no mask, and that’s a very emotional argument. This is about Manhasset’s power to rule itself. And we would just like you to take the free consultation so that you guys can all understand. This is not about us versus you. We’re standing up for Manhasset in this room and the right to rule ourselves.”
Aitken mentioned again the cost of legal action and said the board would consult with its general counsel.
Kirkwood suggested, “Whenever you answer a legal issue, it’s always good to have a second opinion.”
Sarah Adams, another parent of school-age children, said of the mask mandate, “You said you did it for health reasons. I want you to understand that the people who are against masks are also doing that for health reasons. So I think it will be a good idea for the board to take a vote so we could know exactly which members of the board are for masks and against masks.”
She added, “There are health [repercussions] from wearing masks, and as the days go on, more and more research articles are coming out that state that. I am a health care provider, and I know that there are detriments to wearing a mask.”
Adams was thanked for her comments, but no board member responded to her appeal to reveal where they stood on mask-wearing.
Last to speak on this issue was Armando Mejia, who stated, “I stand with the board’s decision that masks are important. That it is indeed a health issue and I want nothing more than for my entire community, my children, my family, my neighbors to be healthy. So thank you, I think you made the right decision.”
Anton Media Group reached out to the parents’ group and the school district (via a FOIL request) for a copy of the letter urging legal consultation. As of press time it has not received it.