ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that schools across New York state can open in the coming weeks.
“By our infection rates, all school districts can open everywhere in the state,” Cuomo said. “Every region is below the threshold that we established, which is great news.”
Schools had quickly shifted to remote learning in the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. For the last few weeks, districts have been creating their reopening plans, which they were required to submit to both the state departments of Health and Education by the end of July. While the majority of the 749 school districts in the state submitted their complete plans on time, 50 districts sent incomplete plans, while another 127 did not fulfill the requirement.
According to Cuomo, the plans need to be approved by the Department of Health before school districts can reopen. He also called on schools to host three virtual forums with parents before Aug. 21, meet with teachers to go over reopening plans and address equity surrounding remote learning.
Districts must also post the specifics of their contact tracing and COVID-19 testing plans by the end of next week.
That last requirement came as a surprise for some area school officials, including Richard Ruberti, the superintendent of the Greater Amsterdam School District. According to Ruberti, the district had planned to take students’ temperatures and identify symptoms, working with the Montgomery County Public Health Department to do so.
“This is new that he’s talking about actual COVID testing in schools, too. That’s another level of it. You have to talk about parental consent and all the components of testing a child in a more intrusive fashion than just taking [their] temperature,” explained Ruberti.
He said the district will work with the county Health Department to create a plan to address testing by next week.
It also came as a surprise to Aaron Bochniak, the interim superintendent of the Schenectady City School District.
In the event of a potential positive case, he planned to work with the Schenectady County Department of Health.
“Our plan was all along that they would be the first phone call and we would be handing the baton to them,” Bochniak said. He is scheduled to meet with department officials on Monday to discuss testing and contact tracing plans.
“We’re educators and they’re public health officials so we need to rely on their expertise in that regard,” Bochniak said.
The president of New York State United Teachers, Andy Pallotta, said that teachers are worried about contact tracing and testing plans.
“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,” Pallotta said. “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.”
While several local lawmakers recently urged Cuomo to create a state-wide plan for testing educators, students and staff for COVID-19, the governor said on Friday that a state-wide policy would not work.
“There is no one size fits all,” Cuomo said. “These questions of remote learning, testing, contact tracing, these have to be done district by district because the circumstances are that different.”
While each school district’s reopening plan is different, both Schenectady’s and Amsterdam’s focus on hybrid learning, with some in-person and some remote classes.
“While not everyone wants to have in-person learning, there is a strong contingent that does and we want to make sure we’re responsive to them also,” Bochniak said, “I think there’s relief in that regard, that we’re able to provide for families what they think they need for what’s best for their kids.”
From the start, Ruberti said that it was important for the reopening plans to be flexible.
“We had a lot of feedback from parents that they were not ready to send their kids to school no matter what was in place,” Ruberti said. The district is creating a remote learning program for those students.
“It’s unprecedented and it’s such a disruption to the educational process but we’re working with multiple groups, getting feedback and making changes,” Ruberti said.
Those plans will likely need to remain flexible, depending on Capital Region infection rates.
Schools could shut down across the state if the infection rate hits 9 percent or higher over a seven-day average. According to Cuomo, the state-wide rate has hovered around 1 percent this week.
“Again, we are going to watch the infection rate between now and the day that schools open,” Cuomo said. “If there’s a spike in the infection rate, if there’s a matter of concern in the infection rate, then we can revisit it. But for planning purposes, they can reopen.”