Governor Authorizes School Districts Reopening

School classroom in blur background without young student; Blurry view of elementary class room no kid or teacher with chairs and tables in campus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the green light for all school districts across the state to reopen, at least in theory, even as he has been “deluged with calls from parents and teachers,” who are anxious about classrooms reopening.

The infection rate in every region, including on Long Island, is low enough that it falls well under the threshold Cuomo set in late June to address school reopening. Exactly how schools will reopen for the 2020-21 academic year — whether in-person, for online classes only, or some mix of both — remains up to each individual district.

The governor said “there is no one size fits all” answer to school reopenings. “These have to be done district by district because the circumstances are that different district by district.”

While the virus continues to spread elsewhere in the country, New York went from having the worst infection rate over the spring to the best, making school reopenings a possibility. The state will continue to monitor the infection rate between now and day schools open.

“If any state can do it, this state can do it. Because we’ve been smart from day one,” Cuomo said during a briefing on Friday morning, adding that New Yorkers can “bring the same level of intelligence to the school reopening as we brought to the economic reopening.”

Every school district was required to submit reopening plans to the State Department of Health and the State Education Department. Most are looking to provide some sort of hybrid model that will blend classroom and remote learning.

Of the 749 school districts statewide, 127 have not yet submitted plans. The health department can reject plans that are not responsible enough, Cuomo said. About 50 districts have either been marked incomplete or deficient. The DOH is going to continue to assess plans over the weekend and on Monday, which could mean there will be more on the list.

In the meantime, Cuomo has now added more requirements for school districts before they open for the school year. Each district has to schedule at least three “discussions” with parents and one for teachers before August 21. The parents must be given notice of the discussions, which can be held online, to give them an opportunity to be heard.

Each district has to post on its website plans that address remote learning, testing and contact tracing — separate from the overall plan because each plan is quite lengthy, Cuomo said.

Cuomo wants remote learning and the equity in that remote learning process specifically addressed. “We’ve learned from the experiences we’ve had during COVID that remote learning can be quite unequal given the demographics and the circumstances,” he said.

Districts must also address the COVID-19 testing question, including how and where students and teachers will get tested. Testing as a screening mechanism is not mandatory, though regular health screenings are.

If a student tests positive, how contact tracing will be executed also needs to be addressed. “Do you test the class? If the student goes to a number of classes how do you do it?” Cuomo asked.

“These three areas are the highly questioned areas, almost across all school districts,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo acknowledged that asymptomatic students and teachers could spread the virus in schools, just as the state determined, after the fact, that asymptotic staff spread the virus in nursing homes. “The answer is testing but then the question becomes okay what percentage of testing, who is going to do the testing. . . ,” Cuomo said.

Jim Malatras, the governor’s director of state operations, said students will have to wear masks if social distancing is not possible. If a child does not have a mask, the district must provide one. Interscholastic sports have not yet been approved.

Asked what he thought about an outdoor classroom, an idea being batted around by some, at least to start, Cuomo said, “Outdoor learning is great to the extent you can do it.”

Cuomo was also asked what can be done if teachers or their unions refuse to go back to the classroom. “I don’t think you want to get into a legal battle with the teachers. That’s not the nature of the profession or the nature of our relationship. Teachers have to feel safe. They can’t teach if they don’t feel safe. You’re not going to order a teacher into the classroom,” he said. “The teachers have to agree to go back.”

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said in a statement Friday afternoon that health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings and that there are many questions left to be answered.

“No district should consider themselves ready to reopen buildings until their plans are safe and everything in that plan meant to keep the school community safe is implemented. Being safe means parents and teachers must be confident in the reopening plan, and it is welcome news that districts must meet with parents and teachers this month,” he said. We’re thankful the governor agrees that forcing people back into the classroom when they feel their health is threatened is not what should happen. So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period.”

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