‘We need to respect each other’s choices’: NYC teachers’ union leaders speak about mask-optional policy

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew addressed members of the media and educators to discuss the shift to a mask-optional school policy which began on March 7.

The mask-optional policy only applies to students in grades K-12, while students in 3K and Pre-K will still be required to wear masks while in school.

Speaking outside of the Shuang Wen School in Manhattan on Monday, Mulgrew reassured parents and educators that the mask-optional policy has been thoroughly vetted by doctors and medical professionals to ensure the safety of students and school faculty.

“It’s been a long time that we have waited to be in this position,” said Mulgrew during the press conference. “There’s been hundreds of meetings with doctors, hundreds of meetings of looking at data and all of the different things that we have learned throughout this pandemic. Our doctors have said to us ‘if you are going to be responsible in terms of getting out of a pandemic, you are going to have to go through a phase where you will loosen some of the restrictions but you must keep up the monitoring at all times and that is very very important.” 

This monitoring includes continued track and trace surveillance which includes continued widespread testing – including take-home tests and random testing – as well as isolating those who have been exposed or exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. 

UFT chapter leader at PS 184 and educator Brian Dornicik also spoke during the press conference to address how teachers are feeling about the change in mask-wearing policy as well as how the Shuang Wen School would be operating with the shift.

“I think it’s great that this is where we’re at and that the mask mandate is ending,” said Dornicik. “The data supports it, but I think that the most important thing at this point is respecting each other’s decisions. I know that I for one don’t have any personal fear myself, but I know that I will keep my mask on in the classroom for now because I have a co-teacher who is expecting a baby and I have a mother-in-law at home who has been fighting cancer. Everybody has different situations [and] our students are aware of that too. Most of our students are going to be keeping their masks on out of concern for the community, not for personal fears. But I think that the most important thing is respecting each other’s choices.”

Experts will continue to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that students and educators are safe, and if there is a spike in cases again they will consider adjusting the mandate or look into other options to ensure the safety of the community.

“It has been a long time that we have waited to be in this position,” said Mulgrew. “It’s [been] over 700 days right now from when our school system closed to today. So we are going from a mandate to an optional. But now it is important that we continue to look at all the numbers, really drill down on a weekly basis and if there are any sort of issues, we will adjust. But again, I am hoping that today proves to be a milestone day that we are finally near the end of this pandemic.”