Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he’ll decide this week on whether schools can partially or fully reopen in September. Meanwhile, many school districts have been busy figuring out safe ways to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have already made some preliminary decisions.
Cuomo said he’s waited until early August to make a final decision because he wants the 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, also have issued guidelines for schools to reopen safely. Their criteria include 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, is anxiously awaiting the governor’s announcement. The association's David Albert said they are hoping for very detailed guidance.
“School districts cannot simply turn on a dime, they cannot open schools without adequate preparation,” Albert said. “So what they really need is clarity.”
Albert said 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 districts, and found that they're 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 that are going to be requiring masks; we have some schools that are going to be requiring face shields.”
Albert said 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. Cuomo said 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 said if that happens, schools will have to cut back on the more costly in-person learning and conduct more classes remotely.
He said 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. “Obviously, our members are not public health experts.”
He said he hopes the state can set up protocol for local health departments and schools to follow.
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 would have the option to keep their children learning from home full time, if they have health and safety concerns.
Two positive coronavirus 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 would completely shut down until levels of transmission are lower.
The teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, said the standards don’t go far enough. The union wants more random testing and stronger contact tracing.