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Cuomo To Issue School Reopening Guidance

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking March 25, 2020.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he’ll decide next week on whether schools can partially or fully reopen in September. Meanwhile, many school districts have been busy figuring out safe ways to re-open during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have already made some preliminary decisions.  

Cuomo says he’s waited until early August to make a final decision, because he wanted to latest data available on the rate of transmission of the virus. Cuomo, speaking in mid-July, said the reopening will be guided by science.  

“If you have the virus under control, reopen. If you don’t have the virus under control, then you can’t reopen,” Cuomo said on July 13. “We’re not going to use our children as a litmus test. And we are not going to put our children in a place where their health is endangered. It’s that simple.” 

The state’s Board of Regents and Education Department, which are not directly controlled by the governor, have also issued guidelines for schools to reopen safely. Their criteria includes mandatory mask wearing by students and teachers and other staff, daily health checks for everyone entering the schools, and improved ventilation and air filtration systems. Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, is also working on rules.  

The New York State School Boards Association, like everyone involved in making the decisions, are anxiously awaiting the governor’s announcement. The Association's David Albert, speaking via Skype, says they are hoping for very detailed guidance.  

“School districts cannot simply turn on a dime, they cannot open schools without adequate preparation,” Albert said. “What they really need is clarity.” 

Albert says schools are deep into planning, which includes rethinking every aspect of the school day. His group surveyed school board members at many of the state’s 700 school districts, and found that they are concerned that there might not be enough funding to adopt all of the safety measures without more state or federal aid.   

“Just buying the personal protective equipment,” he said. “We have schools who are going to be requiring masks, we have some schools that are going to be requiring face shields for younger students.” 

Albert says several more bus runs will be needed per day to safely socially distance the students, and that will increase fuel and vehicle maintenance costs.   

Congress went home for a week without agreeing on a new federal aid package that could contain more aid for schools. Governor Cuomo says if the money does not come through, he’ll have to slash the state’s spending on schools by 20% to close a multibillion dollar deficit. Albert says if that happens, schools will have to cut back on the more costly in person learning and conduct more classes remotely.

He says there’s one more piece of advice that school boards would like the governor to address, how to handle an outbreak of the virus at a school. 

“What happens when we get a case, if we get a case?” Albert said. “Do we close the school down? Who has the authority to do that? Obviously, our members are not public health experts.”  

He says he hopes the state can set up protocol for local health departments and schools to follow.  

In a WAMC interview Friday afternoon, Cuomo said schools will open if the coronavirus infection rate holds.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has already begun laying out plans for the school year. Schools would employ a hybrid model of part-time learning in the classroom combined with some days of remote classes. Parents will have the option to keep their children learning from home full-time, if they have health and safety concerns. Two COVID cases would trigger the immediate shutdown of an individual school. And if more than 3% of New York City residents test positive for the virus during a seven-day period, schools will completely shut down, until levels of transmission are lower.  

The teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, says the standards don’t go far enough, and want more randomized testing, and stronger contact tracing. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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