Poly Goes Mask Optional After State Initially Called for Delay

This story has been updated to cover new developments and include an updated quote from Director of Health and Well-being Sarah Zuercher.

After weeks of back-and-forth discussion surrounding Poly’s mask policy, following the green-light from New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Director of Health and Well-being Sarah Zuercher told the Polygon on February 28 that Poly intends to go mask optional as of Wednesday, March 2. 

In a later email to the Polygon on the same day, she clarified that, “I spoke with you today with the understanding that your article would not go live until Tuesday or Wednesday. Our mask optional policy is not official until we announce it to our community. Our intention is to make masks optional as soon as possible.”

At 5 o’clock that evening, Zuercher sent an email to the community. “Poly will be mask-optional for our Kindergarten through Grade 12 students and employees starting Wednesday, March 2. We have confirmed this timeline with the NY State and City Department of Health. We will implement this policy for Nursery and Pre-K students and employees starting Monday, March 7 pending Mayor Adams’ confirmation this Friday,” wrote Zuercher. 

This has been a decision long-time coming. 

After deciding to forgo a mask requirement on February 9, Poly abruptly reversed their decision and continued to require students and staff to wear masks after the involvement of state and city health officials amid widespread media coverage. 

“We received clarity today from the NY State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that such a measure is not permissible under current state- and city-wide restrictions,” wrote Zuercher in an email to the Poly community the afternoon of February 11. “Accordingly, we are going to delay our implementation of this mask-optional policy until it is permissible within state and city regulations.” 

Zuercher spoke to a senior DOH representative the morning of February 11. Throughout the day, Zuercher talked to representatives from both New York City and New York State. “I talked to the state in the morning, and then I talked to the city later, then I talked to the state again. I was going back and forth…They clarified that if we went forward [with the mask-optional policy], they would consider that a violation,” said Zuercher. 

“We don’t want to do anything that is counter to the DOH. We don’t get anything from that. Once I received all the information, I made the decision [to reverse the mask-optional policy],” said Head of School Audrius Barzdukas.

The decision comes as New York State drops its statewide indoor mask mandate following the surge of Omicron this winter. Hochul has yet to ease mask rules for public schools, however. A statewide mask mandate for schools remains in place until at least February 21. Hochul has said she would reassess the school mask mandate in early March. New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut have all rolled back mask mandates in schools in recent days. Prior to the reversal of their decision, Poly was to be the first school in New York City to lift a mask requirement, and the story was picked up by media such as the New York Post and New York Times.

“We worked with the school and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the school agreed to delay its plan to no longer require masks until such a policy is permitted,” said DOH spokeswoman Jill Montag on February 11 according to the New York Times. “We are glad they decided to do the right thing.”

Zuercher did not explicitly comment on whether Poly was in contact with the DOH prior to the initial decision to go mask optional. In an interview on February 14, when asked if Poly had contact prior with the DOH regarding their decision to remove the mask mandate, Barzdukas said he didn’t know. “Zuercher has a relationship with them as part of her job. I’ve never spoken to the Department of Health.” 

When asked if the DOH posed any ramifications for non-compliance in her conversation with them on February 11, Zuercher said, “We didn’t go down that road with them. The DOH has been a really good partner with us throughout the pandemic and we want to maintain that.” 


Zuercher had announced February 9 that the schoolwide mask requirement would be lifted on February 14 and replaced by a mask-optional policy — the same day the state lifted its mask mandate for businesses.The change in policy would have applied to both the Dyker Heights and Lower School campuses. 

The decision to lift the requirement was made in consultation with Poly’s Health and Safety team, Zuercher, and Barzdukas. Barzdukas clarified that there wasn’t always agreement among team discussions. “The way committees work is we seek consensus—we have never [had] unanimity on things,” said Barzdukas. “At the end of the day, as the Head of School, I’m the one who’s ultimately responsible for these decisions.”

Barzdukas was initially unclear about sharing who, specifically, was on the health advisory team. “We have an MD,” he said February 14 after initially saying in a previous interview that the Polygon quoted last week, “we have a team of physicians.” 

In an interview February 10, Zuercher further explained the purpose and importance of the health advisory team throughout the pandemic. “The strength of [the health advisory board] has been that we sometimes bring opposing viewpoints and then hash through all that and it helps us clarify the decision that we come to and I think make a stronger plan because of that,” said Zuercher. “Everybody’s opinion is very impactful, so everybody’s opinion swayed the decision. Ultimately, [for] this kind of decision, Mr. Barzdukas, is the ultimate decider and the owner of the decision. In the end, I feel like we have made a good decision for the health of the school.”

Zuercher also further explained the rationale behind lifting the mandate, attributing it to the sharp decline in COVID cases in the Poly community. “As we look at the layers of our COVID safety strategy, we don’t need to keep all the layers as we always have as cases go down,” Zuercher said. “While [masking] can be very effective, with Omicron being highly contagious, we think it’s one of the less effective mitigation strategies when you look at everything we’re doing—testing, vaccination, boosters, [and] air filtration.” Zuercher also attributed the swift change in mask policy to how fast Omicron went up and down. 

Zuercher stated that while Poly initially was following the New York State DOH for the majority of the pandemic, Poly moved to both the five-day quarantine and a test to stay protocol prior to the state releasing those guidelines. “We have made other changes to our protocols in advance of the state changing its guidelines. We have tried to really closely adhere to state guidelines, but we think making this change will have a big positive impact on our students and on our community,” said Zuercher.  “Our community, of those who are eligible, are 99.9 percent vaccinated. The public schools are a totally different situation and I think statewide if all the schools were in our school’s situation, Hochul would have already gotten rid of the mask mandate.” 

As for the Lower School, Zuercher explained that they don’t think that the way the group of unvaccinated kids under five is wearing masks is particularly effective in preventing transmission. “They’re little kids, so they’re chewing on them, wearing them below their nose,” said Zuercher. She further explained how the risks of wearing masks might actually outweigh the benefits. “There’s research that’s coming out for kids that the masks might inhibit language acquisition, social and emotional development, [and] their ability to read facial cues,” said Zuercher. 

Head of Upper School Sarah Bates was out of the direct loop of conversation among the administration regarding the mask-optional decision and was at first looking forward to seeing students’ faces. “Then when I found out yesterday that the mandate hadn’t been lifted in schools, it didn’t feel great that we were doing that,” said Bates on February 11. “So while it’s going to be tough to pull that back in our mentality, [that] we all want to be moving on, it’s necessary. We have to follow what the government officials say.”  


This would have been the first time the Poly community wouldn’t have been required to mask indoors since March 2020. With such a change, community members had mixed emotions. 

“It’s not the end of the world, but it’s annoying to have your hopes up and a glimpse of the end of the pandemic, but it quickly reverts back,” said senior Scarlett Beard of the mask-optional policy reversal. “I feel like Poly should have been more careful and aware because they were so quickly shut-down. It’s clearly a process; it’s not just a decision.” 

On February 10, when the plan was to go mask optional, math teacher Gyanesh Sharma said, “I have somebody at home with preconditions, but I am a biologist and a biochemist, and I understand the chances of you getting COVID with a mask on is definitely reduced, but the chances of you getting COVID right now is so low if you already haven’t had it. So I will not be wearing a mask very often unless I’ve been told that I have to. If anyone feels like wearing a mask, it’s their body and they’re trying to protect themselves. That’s perfectly fine by me.” 

Sophomore Jane Littleton also felt comfortable taking off her mask. “Since I know that most everyone is vaccinated, that’s a comfort to me. People don’t wear their masks right anyway,” said Littleton. 

While some were excited at the prospect of taking off masks, others were not so comfortable. 

“I am going to wear my mask on Monday [February 14] and [my daughter] has stated she is going to wear three masks on Monday because my mother-in-law has breast cancer and that’s what makes us feel most comfortable right now,” said health teacher Phoebe Aberlin-Ruiz. 

Senior Anne Vasquez added, “I think it’s kind of stupid because [Poly was] sending people home literally two weeks ago [for not wearing masks], so to say, ‘oh yeah, it’s optional now’ is a little ridiculous in timing at least. Also, immunocompromised people still exist. Even though people at Poly have to be vaccinated, not every single person that people at Poly lives with can be or are vaccinated, so I think it’s opening up a can of worms that we really don’t want to open.” 

Zuercher said she understood the fear and discomfort that arose. “For people who are concerned about not wearing a mask, wearing a well-fitting N95 mask, even if everyone around you isn’t wearing a mask, is still a really good protective measure,” said Zuercher on February 9. Every Poly student aged 5 plus is vaccinated and aged 16 plus have to be boosted. Poly’s weekly testing program would have and still will remain in place to closely monitor school case trends. “The risk is increased in school transmission and that’s why we are going to be really carefully paying attention to cases, to symptom reporting on RUVNA, to figure out if that’s happening,” said Zuercher.  

Many community members were still torn, with some even foreseeing the clash Poly has since had with the government.  “It’s been two years of masking and while the CDC still says, ‘well actually, maybe we should keep our masks,’ states, for obvious political reasons, are saying ‘no take ’em off,’” said history teacher Timothy Shea on February 10. “Putting the mask back on after already having it off is a big step.” 

History teacher Virginia Dillon said she would have and still will continue to mask, as she is nine months pregnant. “There [are] a lot of difficult factors that go into making these decisions,” said Dillon. “Anyone who tells you that this decision is easy to make probably isn’t thinking through all the different factors…there’s lots of push and pulls, and there’s no decision that’s going to make everyone happy and comfortable.”  

Math teacher Victoria Stawowy-Mokos was also hesitant, pointing out that Poly had been closely following the guidelines of the DOH up until recently. “Not always, but we’ve been following the lead of the biggest school system in the country, and now we took it on our own reins to make that decision…It seems like we went from one extreme to the other very quickly. At this point, masks aren’t hurting anyone – everyone’s used to it at this point – so I don’t know why we had to abruptly decide this.” 

Zuercher had hoped the community would have been able to adjust to the change. “Like every COVID safety decision we’ve made, there are going to be some people who are really happy and some people who are really unhappy,” said Zuercher on February 9. “We try to look at the evidence and the science and make the best decision that we can to balance COVID safety with overall mental health, emotional, and social well-being. If we realize this was a big mistake, then we will go back to masking.” 

Even if the school continues to mask, Barzdukas acknowledged the ability to go mask optional in the first place. “We’ve been very fortunate as a school to implement our testing and our contact tracing protocols. There aren’t schools as fortunate. I wish everyone had the resources to do things the way we were doing it,” said Barzdukas.  

Poly remains optimistic that a return to a mask-optional policy is in the near future. “The good news is that for this Sunday’s testing, we’ve had no positives. This is the longest stretch of no positives we’ve had since the first week in December. As long as there’s no new variant, as soon as New York State lifts the mask mandate, our plan is to immediately put our mask-optional [policy] into effect,” said Zuercher on February 14. “We remain open to the fact that we need to adjust and that’s kind of how life goes…We look forward to a return to normalcy as soon as is permissible.”