ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Sunday that the statewide masking requirement in schools will be lifted by Wednesday.
In a briefing held in Albany, the Democrat cited declining COVID-19 cases and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She said counties and cities could keep their own mandates in place, and parents could still choose to send their kids to school in masks.
The new rules effective Wednesday apply to children 2 years and older in childcare facilities. New York State has 2.7 million schoolchildren, including about 1 million in New York City.
Earlier this month, Hochul let a broad mask mandate for most indoor settings expire, but said the school's requirement would remain in place. She had promised to revisit the school's question by the first week of March.
This decision comes after Hochul cited a 98 percent drop in cases statewide since January 7. In addition, she talked about the declining number of COVID hospitalizations and the strong vaccination rate.
"This is not just an instinct, reaction or just a gut feeling of when you have a mask on or a mask off. You do it based on listening to the experts, you do it based on metrics and data that are reliable," Hochul said Sunday.
She also made it clear the decision to end the mask mandate in schools was an inclusive one.
"Our school superintendents, our school administrations ... we talked to everyone first, we involved them, they understand what we're doing and they agree with us," Hochul expressed.
One of those superintendents is Mike Cornell from Hamburg, who is also president of the Erie-Niagara Schools Superintendents Association.
Cornell has been consistent with his belief that the mandate should have expired on February 21, and he was one of several area superintendents who penned a letter to the governor earlier this month.
Cornell told 2 On Your Side, "We've been unequivocal in our position that it should have been lifted. Schools are just not a place where COVID spreads readily. That's always been true, and we have every expectation that schools are going to be just as safe after March 2 as they were before March 2."
The goal over the next couple of days, Cornell says, is to ensure a seamless transition for faculty, staff and students and resume learning as it once was, sooner than later.
Hochul did say clearly that counties and cities have the right to keep their own mandates. Parents also have the right to decide what they believe is best for their child.
Niagara County Legislature Chairman Becky Wydysh welcomed the news, saying there would be no mask mandates in schools there.
“Today, Governor Hochul announced the state mandate requiring masks in schools will be lifted this Wednesday, March 2," Wydysh said in a statement Sunday afternoon. "It will then be left to individual counties to decide whether to continue such a mandate.
"We have previously said that Niagara County would not continue that mandate if the decision were left to us. We continue to hold that view and want to be clear that Niagara County will NOT be implementing any local mask mandate for our schools."
New York Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt said he agreed with the decision, but added that he would like to see additional steps taken.
"The unmasking of our school children is a long overdue victory for kids and parents, educators, and common sense," he said in a statement. "It is time to put my resolution up for a vote, end the unnecessary statewide emergency, and end all Albany mandates."
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta also issued a statement, praising Hochul for balance.
"We welcome this step toward normalcy," Pallotta said. "The governor is striking the right balance by empowering local officials to use data to determine if and when the mitigation strategies need to change in their areas.
"As the guidance changes, one thing must remain constant: It’s essential that districts work closely with educators to ensure there is confidence in their health and safety plans.”
The broad mask mandate was implemented during a COVID-19 surge fueled by the omicron variant in December.
Masks are still required in some places, including public transit.
Erie County on Saturday had announced that the mask mandate currently in effect for county-owned buildings will be lifted on Monday.
According to Saturday's news release, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website now has information on COVID-19 Community Levels nationwide, which is the measure of the impact of COVID-19 illness on community health and health care systems. Erie County is listed in the 'medium' category.