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Genesee County school districts ready for optional masking

By Joanne Beck


As Genesee County school officials responded to New York State's decision to remove mask mandates in schools, they kept civility central to their messages. Governor Kathy Hochul made the announcement on Sunday that masks would be optional for districts in New York State starting Wednesday. 

Batavia City School District 
City schools Superintendent Jason Smith sent a letter out to district families confirming that Hochul’s weekend announcement means that “every county in New York State will now have control over masking guidelines,” with the qualifier that districts may still require masks if the county’s COVID-19 data supports it. 

“We support this mask optional decision and look forward to a full return to normalcy, and we will continue to advocate local control,” Smith said to The Batavian on Monday. Part of that control includes how students and families react to the actions of others. 

“On Wednesday, March 2, families may still choose to send their children to school in masks and we fully stand behind the governor’s sentiments that masking is a personal choice, and no bullying of any sort will be tolerated,” Smith’s letter stated. “We will continue to provide information in the coming days leading up to Wednesday, March 2 on how the lifted mandate will specifically affect the Batavia City School District.”

Pembroke Central School
Likewise, Pembroke Central School District families also received a letter with an outline of what and will not be acceptable behavior once the mask mandate is gone. Masks will be optional for everyone, and harassment based on wearing or not wearing a mask “will not be tolerated,” Superintendent Matthew Calderon’s letter stated.

“All individuals, whether choosing to wear masks or not wear masks, will be respectful of every individual's right to choose,” Calderon said.

Pavilion Central School
Pavilion Central School families were reminded to follow district expectations to “respect everyone and their choice, be kind and continue to follow other safety protocols to keep our school community healthy,” Superintendent Kate Hoffman said. 

Although an announcement from Hochul was anticipated, it came earlier than expected, Hoffman said in the letter she sent out to district members. The district will also shift to mask-optional starting Wednesday, she said, with the exception of school buses “until we hear differently.”

The district will monitor COVID-19 data and the district will continue its work with Genesee County Department of Health and the school’s medical director, “as has been our practice,” Hoffman said.

She suggested that parents talk to their children about this upcoming change, and understand that many people look forward to going mask-free while others may still want to wear one. Testing will be available with parent consent or request, she said. 

Byron-Bergen Central School
For Byron-Bergen Central School, Superintendent Patrick McGee reiterated why Hochul chose to lift the mandate: strong COVID-19 vaccination rates, falling positivity rates, declining hospitalization rates, and new guidance from the CDC as criteria for this decision.

“We understand that this news will bring relief to some and cause apprehension for others. Our goal during this transition is to create safe spaces for all students and staff members,” McGee said in his district letter. “Thank you in advance for being understanding of the feelings and concerns of others and their personal choice about masking. Whatever choice a student and family makes, our staff will continue to create a welcoming and affirming environment for all.”

Oakfield-Alabama Central School
Oakfield-Alabama’s board had already approved a mask-optional policy during an emergency meeting on Feb. 9. The vote was a precursor to when/if the governor decided to eliminate the mask mandate in schools. Superintendent John Fisgus sent out a letter to the O-A school community Sunday after Hochul’s announcement, and also plans to follow up with staff.

“I am meeting with our District staff over the next 48 hours to provide direction on how to proceed given the absence of this mandate,” Fisgus said.

His letter, sent out on Sunday, asked that “everyone respect the decisions of each individual within our school community.” He also recognized the difficulty of the past two years, given the “ever-changing guidance and restrictions.”

“This time is long overdue,” he said. “Please know that I will be meeting with our faculty and staff over the next two days given this announcement and to ensure our clarity with the new stated mandates.”

Le Roy Central School
Merritt Holly, superintendent of Le Roy Central School, said the district has already spread the word to students, parents, teachers, and staff about masks being optional come Wednesday. A robocall and emails were sent out on Sunday, with expectations that Monday and Tuesday of this week will provide time for parents and teachers to “discuss what is best for their child/student on Wednesday,” Holly said. 

“We will continue to offer daily testing for those that are interested,” he said. “Overall, we are supporting students, teachers, and staff in having a choice in wearing or not wearing a mask now that the mandate has been lifted.”

Elba Central School
In her letter to Elba’s “Lancer family,” Superintendent Gretchen Rosales shared the news of optional masks and urged families “to consult with your family physician to determine what your child’s best health needs may be.”

Elba Central School has a “plentiful supply of masks” for those wanting to continue wearing them, and an “abundance of rapid COVID test” on hand for any family that would like some. Regardless of an individual’s preference, “we will continue to respect the opinions of each other,” Rosales said.

“Our district’s vision of a respectful, safe, and engaging environment will always be paramount,” she said. “Above all, I want to thank all of you for partnering with us as a school district over the past two years. While not every family is at the same level of comfort, nor does each person agree with lifting a mask mandate, our willingness to work together and remain understanding has been a cornerstone of our community.”

Alexander Central School Superintendent Jared Taft did not respond to requests for comment. 

File photo: New Superintendent Jason Smith is shown with Student Co-Mayor Mackenzie Harmon and Batavia High School Principal Paul Kesler during a prior Monday morning announcement at the high school. Masks will now become optional for students and staff as of Wednesday. Photo by Howard Owens.

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