Mayfield school district refutes Stefanik remarks about suspended teacher

PHOTOGRAPHER:

MAYFIELD — A Fulton County school district is pushing back on a Saturday statement from U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik criticizing school administrators for allegedly suspending a teacher for sharing one of the congresswoman’s social media posts criticizing the state mask mandate, calling the remarks “misleading and inaccurate.” 

Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, released a statement accusing the Mayfield Central School District of trampling free speech after “numerous constituents” reported that a pre-K teacher in the district was put on administrative leave and “outrageously escorted” out of a classroom for allegedly sharing one of the congresswoman’s posts on her private Facebook page. 

“Last night, numerous constituents brought to my attention information regarding a pre-K teacher in Fulton County who was wrongfully put on administrative leave for sharing one of my Facebook posts on her private, personal Facebook page,” the statement reads. “This widely respected pre-K teacher was outrageously escorted from her classroom and is no longer allowed on school property pending an investigation.”

The statement — whose headline refers to the “wrongful firing” of a pre-K teacher — goes on to criticize the state’s mask mandate and called the action allegedly taken by the district a violation of the First Amendment before eventually calling for the resignation “of any and all administrators who made this wrongful termination.”   

“This Soviet-style purging of hardworking teachers is [Gov.] Kathy Hochul’s War on Students, Parents, and Teachers,” Stefanik, who is seeking reelection this year, said in the statement.  

The statement, which said the congresswoman’s office plans to file several Freedom of Information Law requests to learn more about the incident, was shared across Stefanik’s social media pages, where it has garnered hundreds of shares and comments, many criticizing the state’s masking regulations.  

But the district, in response to an inquiry from this newspaper, released a statement of its own this weekend, which said the congresswoman’s remarks were inaccurate. 

“It has recently come to the Board of Education’s attention that Congresswoman Elise Stefanik has publicly posted about the ‘wrongful firing’ of a teacher in the Mayfield Central School District. While we typically do not comment on personnel matters, the information Ms. Stefanik posted is misleading and inaccurate,” the statement reads. 

It continues: “First, no teacher has been fired. Second, Ms. Stefanik’s allegation that a teacher has been placed on administrative leave for ‘sharing one of [Representative Stefanik’s] Facebook posts’ regarding the mask mandate also is inaccurate. We will not comment further as this is a personnel matter.” 

Mayfield Mayor Jamie Ward — who became aware of the situation following community outcry — said the entire ordeal, which unfolded this past Friday, has residents in the village buzzing. He pointed to a social media campaign, #IStandWithCarey, that has been gaining traction in support of Carey Lizzio, the pre-K teacher who was allegedly disciplined.

“Disappointed. Disgusted. Disheartened. All words that immediately come to mind for the Mayfield Central School Upper Administration,” read dozens of social media posts being shared with the hashtag.  

Ward said he has spoken with Lizzio, who told him she was put on leave because of something she shared on Facebook and that school administrators have declined to specify what exactly triggered the suspension.   

He added that he reviewed Lizzio’s Facebook page — which has since been deactivated — and found nothing salacious. The most recent post was a message from Stefanik that Lizzio shared, adding #unmaskourkids, which Ward speculated is what led to the district’s action.

“We all looked at her (Facebook) wall and there was nothing that would ever warrant that kind of drastic and harmful decision against this wonderful teacher,” he said. “This is an educator that worked through a pandemic … that everyone loves.”

Lizzio could not be reached for comment. A message sent to her district email account could not be delivered.

Ward, who also reached out to Lizzio after speaking with a reporter, said she had no comment at this time. 

A union representative for Lizzio could not be reached Sunday. It’s unclear what policy the district has in place for teachers regarding social media, although it has become common practice to implement policies regulating online activity in recent years.  

Ward, meanwhile, criticized the district for its lack of transparency and said the district is choosing to hide behind a statement rather than be open. He described Lizzio as a “posterchild for a great teacher,” adding the district’s statement does not align with his knowledge of events. 

“Something is going on here and it really upsets me,” he said. 

Asked about the district’s remarks, a representative for Stefanik said the congresswoman stands by her original statement and called on the district to release all materials relating to actions taken against Lizzio.

“Congresswoman Stefanik is now publicly calling for the Mayfield Central School District to release any and all documentation and communications related to the decision to place this widely respected pre-K teacher on administrative leave,” Palmer Brigham, a Stefanik spokesman, said in a statement. 

The incident comes just days after a State Supreme Court judge overturned the state’s mask mandate, ruling the mandate was handed down unlawfully and was therefore unenforceable. An appeals court, the next day, temporarily restored the mandate as the ruling continues to work its way through the appeals process.  

Hochul, last week, extended the mandate to Feb. 10 as a way to combat the winter surge, which has been trending downward in recent weeks, though cases and hospitalizations remain high. 

Still, the recent court rulings has led to confusion in local schools, including an incident at a Saratoga Springs elementary school that garnered a police response.

Stefanik has been outspoken against the policy for months and has ramped up her criticism in light of the lower court ruling, asking parents to reach out to her office if their child was not permitted to enter a school without a mask via social media. 

A member of the House Education and Labor Committee, Stefanik has continued to deride COVID protocols as government overreach even as caseloads have surged in recent weeks and hospitals, including Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, have been forced to stop performing elective and non-essential surgeries due to a surge in COVID-19 patients. 

Shenandoah Briere contributed to this report. 

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

By CHAD ARNOLD

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