ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — New York state will not provide guidance for reopening schools next month.
According to New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, because New York’s COVID-19 state of emergency was lifted, neither the office of the governor or Department of Health will issue reopening guidance, but instead will leave that up to local districts. In a statement Thursday, Dr. Zucker said:
“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools. Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments.”
Monroe County superintendents are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss this update. They recently penned a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo requesting guidance as soon as possible.
During the pandemic last year, each school district in New York was required to submit a reopening plan to the state government for approval.
It is not immediately clear if guidance will come from the Monroe County Department of Public Health, if districts will rely on CDC guidelines, or if local districts will have their own authority to make district-specific plans.
When it comes to getting kids back in the classroom, Rochester Teachers Union President Adam Urbanski says districts need to focus on four things: Vaccination and testing for staff, continuing to provide remote learning options, continuing mask-wearing and distancing, and additional personnel to make class sizes smaller.
“Or else, schools could become centers for the spread of the virus,” says Urbanski.
The State Health Department today saying in part “…districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and (we) recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments…” The CDC listing distancing as one of their top preventative steps for schools, also masking, ventilation, and promoting vaccination for those eligible.
When it comes to teachers in Monroe County, the Superintendent of Schools says they’re in good shape.
“You have teacher vaccination rates of 80-90% or better,” says Bo Wright.
But masking he says—- will likely still be present with the delta variant circulating. “There will be a masking requirement of some sort…”
The delta variant Urbanski says—- spreads at a fast rate and spreads easier in children. Many youngsters, not yet eligible for the vaccine.
“That’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t take the necessary precautions,” says Urbanski.
But to actually get classrooms geared up for safe in-person learning, Urbanski says we’re just a few weeks away. Time is ticking. “It won’t be easy…but it could be done,” he says.
A statement Thursday from Bo Wright, the President of the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents, and the Rush-Henrietta Central School District superintendent:
“The Monroe County Council of Superintendents has confirmed that the state does not intend to issue guidance regarding reopening of schools in September. For months, we have asked New York to provide guidance as soon as possible. The announcement that there will be no direction at all from the state comes as a complete surprise. Now, with only four weeks left before the first day of school, districts will continue the conversation about how best to approach reopening. This will take some time, as each district has a unique set of circumstances regarding their student population, available space and resources, busing, and more. Local districts remain committed to reopening in-person five days a week, and will share their plans with families and staff as soon as possible.”
A statement from officials at the Greece Central School District:
“As recently as last week, we were told new guidance was in the works. The state’s reversal today will not derail our plans for a safe reopening. We will release our own reopening guidance to the Greece Central community later this month. We continue to expect that all students will return to full-time in person instruction in September.”
A spokesperson from the Rochester City School District said the district was working on opening schools using CDC guidelines for K-12.
CDC guidelines currently call for masking and physical distancing as spread prevention strategies, adding that “if school administrators decide to remove any of the prevention strategies for their school based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing through the school and/or community) for any increases in COVID-19 cases.”
Earlier this week, Wright held a press conference to provide an update on reopening school this fall.
Wright said the experience of 2020 will help districts with educational models for this academic year, but he also called for clear guidance from the state.
Wright said he is committed to fully reopening schools, for five days per week, next month, regardless of the hurdles.
“Our intention is to fully reopen,” Wright said. “We think we have a moral obligation to do that and I know I speak for every superintendent in the county when I saw that all of us are committed to making sure whatever the circumstances are, that kids have the opportunity to come back to school for five days, full in-person iunstruction.
“Do I think there will be challenges to that? Yeah, I do,” Wright said. “And if I can identify one challenge that has to the potential to be a real barrier, it’s distancing. What’s required and what’s regulatory guidance in relation to distancing — how flexible is that going to be? That’s one of the unknowns we have to wait and see what it looks like.”
Wright said he assumed there would be some sort or masking requirement for students and staff this fall, especially with the delta variant surge and rising case numbers, but now that it won’t come from the state it remains to be seen how local districts would require or enforce masking. He said the masking issue is something that parents on both sides of the discussion feel strongly about.
“You hear feedback from both ends,” Wright said. “Parents will contact you who many not want to mask again, then others who are happy that there will probably be some sort of masking requirement in place, and are encouraged by the recommendations coming out of the CDC and the county.”
In his briefing on Monday, Gov. Cuomo encouraged local school districts statewide to do the same with a vaccine mandate.
“I believe school districts should say today, teachers must get vaccinated or tested weekly, if you are in a CDC high-risk area, the red or the yellow zones,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I think they should say that to teachers today.”
The governor said school districts should delay in setting vaccine policies, because teachers will need time to get one or two shots before school starts in a month.
“I think school districts should say ‘vaccinate or test,’” Gov. Cuomo said. “Schools open in one month and if you don’t set a policy today, you’re going to have chaos in one month.”
Following his announcement, officials from the New York State United Teachers union said they support encouraging more vaccinations, but not a vaccine mandate:
“We have advocated since the beginning of the year that any educator who wants a vaccine should have easy access to one. We would support local efforts to encourage more vaccinations, such as through programs that require that those who are not vaccinated get tested on a regular basis. But it’s critical that districts come up with plans to make testing available on-site and at no cost. What we have not supported is a vaccine mandate,” the union said in a statement.
Wright said most districts have a high vaccination rate among the teachers.
“I haven’t looked at the numbers since the very start of summer, but I think it’s safe to say from a teacher standpoint, in most districts, you probably have about 80% to 90% of them vaccinated,” Wright said.
In their letter to the governor last month, Monroe County Superintendents asked for state guidance on reopening schools “as soon as possible.” The letter also said a “full pandemic recovery must include a full in-person reopening for all students in September,” and “in alignment with CDC guidance, masking outdoors should not be required in the fall.”
The letter also said that indoor masking should be based on local data and determined by districts in collaboration with local health departments.
This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.