Gov. Andrew Cuomo's comments in recent days about coronavirus testing at schools are causing confusion and concern in local districts.
The governor mentioned testing in his coronavirus briefings on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
He said he has been "deluged" by calls from concerned parents, and it's one of the most commonly asked questions.
"How many tests?" Cuomo said parents are asking, "Is that a representative sample? How long is it going to take you to get the test returns?"
But before this weekend, school administrators, like West Irondequoit Central School District Superintendent Aaron Johnson, said they had not heard about any guidelines or requirements for testing staff and students for the virus.
"So that came out of left field," Johnson said.
In fact, in its 144-page guidance for school reopenings, the New York State Education Department strongly recommends that schools comply with Centers for Disease Control guidance and not conduct coronavirus testing or require testing of students or staff members.
Whether to conduct testing, the guidelines go on to say, is a decision that should be determined by a health care provider or the local department of health.
When WXXI News reached out to Cuomo's office for clarification on the issue, spokesperson Jason Conwall provided the following statement:
“Districts must have a plan in place for testing related to symptomatic or exposed individuals, whether in school or through the local health department, that includes timely delivery of results and any ensuing testing of additional individuals. Additionally, any positive cases must be tracked through established contact tracing protocols and in coordination with the local health department. DOH guidance allows districts to implement additional testing protocols.”
Conwall said: “The Department of Health guidance serves as the mandatory baseline of health and safety protocols for school districts to follow and testing is part of a continuum of mitigation efforts that includes mandatory daily temperature checks and other additional screening, testing for symptomatic individuals or exposures and contact tracing in the event of a positive case."
Johnson said he would understand the need for testing as a safety measure, but the timing is a problem and, depending on the size and scope of the effort, it could cause unintended consequences.
"We're approaching four weeks out, give or take, from opening a school, and that would make me anxious as a superintendent, if that was something that was required this late in the game," he explained. "It could potentially create a barrier for some schools to launch a successful hybrid model."
Johnson said his district would not have any knee-jerk reaction to Cuomo's comments, but instead wait for further guidance from the state education and health departments.
Aside from the timing, logistics, and the unanswered questions about who would pay for it if districts set up their own testing, Johnson said the notion of testing for staff and students isn't neccessarily a bad thing. He said the majority of people he talks to are anxious about reopening.
"Anything that we can do to make people more comfortable returning back and knowing that we're minimizing their risk and their child's risk, I think is helpful, so if that becomes the mandate, we'll find a way to make that happen," said Johnson.
Like many school districts, West Irondequoit is proposing a combination of in-person and remote learning. A recent survey indicated that roughly 75% of families in the district are comfortable with their children returning to the classroom at least part of the time.
The governor is expected to announce his decision this week on whether in-person learning can resume at all in September.