State outlines guidance for COVID-19 schools reopening

While districts must submit plans by July 31, reopening targets will be based on infection rate trends as per Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

Students, families and educators all got their first look at formal guidelines for potentially reopening schools to students and teachers this fall on Monday, including the COVID-19 infection rate benchmarks necessary for schools to open.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a press briefing explained how regional COVID-19 infection rates will determine whether schools can reopen and if they need to be closed. Beginning Aug. 1, schools in regions under Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan will be allowed to open if infection rates are 5 percent or lower based on a 14-day average; if infection rates go over 9 percent on a 7-day average, schools in that region will have to close, Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s office also released health guidelines spelling out what schools must do to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. Meanwhile, on Monday morning, the Board of Regents, discussed state education guidance that will require students and staff to wear face coverings or face shields, ensure schools take daily attendance for both in-person and remote students and gives flexibility to teachers creating lesson plans utilizing a combination of in-person and remote instruction.

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State Education Department staff presented a broad framework of a formal guidance document officials said will be released Wednesday and will include education guidelines developed by SED and the health guidelines developed by the state Department of Health and a task force led by the governor’s office.

“It’s not ‘reopen or not,’” Cuomo said of the formula he said will determine if schools in a particular region can reopen. “You reopen if it’s safe to reopen.”

The health guidelines released Monday recommend universal mask-wearing at all times when at school and requires it when people cannot maintain social distancing. The guidelines also require anyone visiting a school have their temperature taken each day; if anyone registers a temperature over 100 degrees, the person must be denied access to the building or sent somewhere to await immediate pick up. 

While schools are told to “prioritize efforts to return all students to in-person instruction at this time,” the guidelines acknowledge districts may have to pursue a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction. The guidelines also encourage schools to group students into “cohorts,” especially younger students; the cohorts serve as groups of students who can do their school work together, limiting interactions with other students, minimizing possible infectious encounters.

Districts are required to immediately notify local health departments upon notification of a positive COVID-19 test result of someone within the school and work with that health agency on tracing who had come into contact with that person. Districts then have to spell out how someone who tests positive can return to school, including documentation of a negative test result and symptom resolution.  

School districts, which have already started to develop plans using existing federal and state health guidance, will be expected to submit plans for the coming school year to SED and the state Department of Health by July 31. Once districts have approved reopening plans, including at the school level, they must be posted on public websites. Those plans will have to specify how districts and schools intend to manage the logistics of social distancing and accommodate students needs in person, remotely and a combination of the two. 

The plans include both health and education requirements and must detail the following four areas: reopening school facilities for in-person instruction; monitoring of health conditions; containment of potential transmission of COVID-19, and; closure of school facilities and in-person instruction if necessitated by widespread virus transmission.

Districts still have to wait for the specific requirements from SED they must include in plans, but Monday’s presentation unveiled the broad outlines of that formal guidance document — “a big, chunky document,” according to state Education Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The state guidance offers districts flexibility to develop plans based on unique needs while still requiring districts to meet certain basic benchmarks.

“This is a very large state, a diverse state,” said Kimberly Wilkins, deputy education commissioner. “It’s not one-size-fits-all when it comes to reopening these buildings.”

The plans will require schools to monitor student health, perform regular checks for student symptoms and temperature, and provide students with ongoing instruction on proper self hygiene. Students and teachers will be required to wear face coverings, while teachers of younger students or students with disabilities can wear face shields, so students can still see a teacher’s face.

Schools have to provide all enrolled students – whether learning at school or remotely – with access to school meals each school day, continuing to ensure students who may be working remotely can get those meals. Schools should promote social distancing, according to the guidelines, and will be given flexibility to expand building footprints or re-purpose spaces like gyms and auditoriums.

The state guidelines will offer teachers and districts flexibility in meeting requirements that students receive 180 minutes of instruction each week to qualify as a unit of study. That time requirement can be met through direct instruction as well as independent learning that is guided by a teacher, allowing educators to design instructional plans that promote a combination of in-person and remote instruction – or shift to entirely remote if necessary.

The guidelines set the expectation that students receive direct interaction with a teacher on a daily basis.

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“Most importantly, there has to be substantive daily interactions between teachers and their students,” said Marybeth Casey, an assistant commissioner. “We heard that loud and clear at the student forum.”

Members of the Board of Regents raised concerns about how the new school year will unfold, emphasizing the importance of not only giving educators time to develop and learn new strategies, but also to give parents and families support for remote education. The guidelines will encourage districts to support families and ensure they have the technical capabilities to support students learning remotely.

“It seems to me what’s needed now is more than just guidance for families… it seems we ought to have a family plan or parent plan that is very specific about what we expect parents to do in this moment,” Regent Lester Young said.

Some board members called for flexibility to give districts more time to allow educators to learn develop classroom plans and learn best practices. 

“More professional development is going to be needed,” said Shannon Tahoe, interim state Commissioner of Education.  

While the topic didn’t receive much attention Monday, at the Regents meeting or Cuomo’s press conference or in the health guidelines, Regent Luis Reyes noted the expected actions of districts will come at a stout cost, asking staff to attempt to estimate a total cost. 

“It is clear that in a number of places, resources are necessary and are not givens that can be taken for granted,” Regent Luis Reyes said during the meeting.

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