NIAGARA FALLS, NY (WKBW) — “I’m happy that the kids will finally get to have a choice,” declared Nicole Dutton, kindergarten teacher, Cataract Elementary School.
In the Niagara Falls City school District masked kindergartners were engaged in their lesson Monday afternoon. But this Wednesday, they will have the choice to unmask.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced the state will lift its mask mandate for schools effective Wednesday, March 2. The lifting of the mandate Wednesday also applies to children two and older in child care facilities.
“If it's with the mask — that's wonderful and if it's without the mask — that's wonderful too,” remarked Dutton.
Teachers tell me they're excited that the face masks will come down, especially for kindergartners who have never gone to school without their face mask.
“They've just been wearing masks their whole school life,” Dutton noted.
Dutton says her students will finally be able to learn how to sound out letters without a mask getting in the way.
“So they can see how my mouth is moving when we do certain letters that might sound the same,” Dutton described.
“But I think it'll be true excitement. It will only enhance the environment for the kids,” replied Stanley Wojton, principal, Cataract Elementary.
Principal Wojton says mask wearing will now “ultimately” be up to families and the students themselves.
“I think that we're certainly going to have a number of students that will continue to wear them,” replied Dutton.
“There will be no shaming — no bullying — no opportunity to make someone feel uncomfortable if they continue to wear a mask,” responded Mark Laurrie, superintendent, Niagara Falls City School District.
Superintendent Laurrie is now preparing the district to end mask wearing beginning Wednesday.
“I’m a little surprised that it came this early in the week. We we’re kind of hoping it would be next week," Laurrie stated.
The Niagara County Health Department has given the district the okay. Niagara County remains in a “medium” transmission level.
Laurrie says number of cases reported in his school district are “way down” with only two positive student and four staffers cases reported.
“I have a majority of parents who are happier today that they’re coming off, but there have been a few calls saying can they continue,” said Laurrie.
Erie County is also in a medium level and the health department there is giving schools the green light to unmask as well. But, it is advising anyone who is immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease to talk with their health care provider about the need to wear a mask.
“I think there is mixed emotions,” explained Peter Stuhmiller, president, Kenmore Teachers Association. “Some teachers can’t wait — they want to see the faces of their students — other teachers are concerned students that may have some immune comprised issues or themselves.”
Stuhlmiller tells me some teachers are ready to remove their masks, but others are still concerned.
“The one thing we all have to be sure of is we are not mask shaming kids — that we’re not mask shaming adults who are making the decision on their own,” Stulhmiller noted.
I also reached out to the head of the Buffalo teaches union. Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation tells me his union wishes the governor would have waited a week or two to make sure there is no "significant rise:" of cases in the city since students just returned from mid-winter break.
Rumore says they would also like to find out how many city students have been vaccinated.