NY schools can reopen in-person classes

Sophie Grosserode, Joseph Spector
John Christensen
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the announcement last week that all N.Y schools would be allowed to reopen once their plans have been approved.

New York schools will be able to open this fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday. Cuomo said the infection rates due to COVID-19 are low enough so the districts can begin to reopen next month.

“By our infection rates, all school districts can open,” Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters. He said, every region can open, “which is just great news,” adding that New York’s infection rates are among the lowest in the nation.

Friday’s decision is meant to be a preliminary one, as the first day of school is still a month away. Schools do not have to bring students back to the building, Cuomo said. His decision authorizes them to do so if they can.

“They can do in-person school, but it is up to them,” he said.

Local schools respond

Following the governor’s announcement, Penn Yan Central School Superintendent Howard Dennis stated, “Over the past few weeks, the District has cautiously put together a plan which meets the CDC guidelines and expectations of the State Education Department concerning safety.  Realizing there is much that is unknown, we devised our plan with options for families based on their comfort level. Throughout this process we have been in constant communication with families and staff asking for input and feedback and answering questions.  This was a very short window of time to devise this plan and gather feedback.  We will implement these new requirements from the Governor over the next couple weeks.”  

Dundee Central School Superintendent Kelly Houck said, “DCS is very pleased with the Governor’s decision vision to allow all schools to reopen in N.Y. State. We are beyond thrilled and excited to welcome all of our students back to start engaging with school and learning. We are confident in our plans and can’t wait to be moving forward once again.”

What happens now for schools?

 Each district had to submit their own plans to reopen that are being reviewed by the state Health Department.

Cuomo said 127 districts had not yet submitted their plans and 50 of the plans so far were either “incomplete” or “deficient.” If a district’s plan is not approved by the Health Department, they are not authorized to open.

“For planning purposes, they can reopen,” he noted, saying the circumstances could change if infection rates rise. 

Cuomo had said on July 13 that schools would be reopened on a regional basis. Regions that were in Phase 4 of the state’s economic reopening and have a 14-day daily infection rate of 5% or lower would be given the initial all-clear to open schools. But if a region’s COVID-19 numbers worsen before Labor Day, Cuomo said they would not be allowed to reopen. In any region with a seven-day infection average higher than 9%, buildings would have to stay closed.

What will be allowed in schools?

For in-person learning, students and staff will need to wear masks when social distancing cannot take place or when students are eating.

There has been no decision yet on whether to allow youth sports in the fall, state officials said.

The Department of Health and the State Education department are in the process of reviewing the extensive reopening plans schools were supposed to submit last Friday, which they were advised to post publicly to their websites. 

In addition to the full plans that districts were required to post online, Cuomo directed them Friday to post the three components he said has received the most questions about: remote learning, testing, and contact tracing.

He said it would be to each district to decide whether to close a school building if there is a case of COVID. Unions want any district to close a school for at least 14 days if a positive case is found. 

“These questions of remote learning, testing, contact tracing, these have to be done district by district, because the circumstances are that different, district by district,” Cuomo said, pushing back against the calls for a statewide policy around these issues.

“But I can’t fashion a plan that will work in every school district, because they just, they are just too different, and the circumstances are different.” 

The state is also requiring districts to hold three public sessions to answer questions from parents before Aug. 21. They also must hold a separate session for teachers.

Teachers respond

Penn Yan Education Association (teacher’s union) President Tina Webber said, “The governor’s announcement allows our district to reopen if we have appropriate/safe plans in place to do so.  Our district, with input from many stakeholder groups, has put together a comprehensive plan that not only implements all of the requirements given to them, but also most of the additional elements that were recommended, but not strictly required.  If the plan is implemented to its fullest, our Penn Yan schools should be one of the safest places for people to be.  So, we will all work together to ensure the effectiveness of the district plan.  Will things look and feel different?  Of course, they have to.  But, even though we will be doing business like we have never done business before, we will be together; which (as long as everyone is safe) is where our dedicated professional staff wants to be.”

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta also commented, “We have been clear all along: Health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings. Viral infection rates tell only one part of the story. Many educators and parents have anxiety about local school district reopening plans that have been submitted to the state — if they even have been yet, with 127 districts that didn’t bother to submit them by last week and 50 considered incomplete by the state. Among the concerns that remain is the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing and contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case in a school. Right now, there may be some areas where parents and educators are confident in their district’s plan, but in many others, we know they aren’t. 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. 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.”