School districts across the state are still waiting for state health guidelines that will shape key decisions in reopening schools in the fall, and some leaders are saying they can’t wait much longer.
Districts are looking for direction from the state on a handful of issues crucial to their ability to return all students to daily in-person instruction in the fall: masking requirements, social-distancing rules, whether a remote option will be necessary and the extent that districts can ask about vaccine status.
In recent comments, some school leaders have suggested they can only wait so much longer and may have to move forward with making decisions about what the fall will look like in their districts.
“We don’t have guidance,” Capital Region BOCES District Superintendent Anita Murphy said Thursday. “That’s not State Ed., we need (Department of Health) guidance for reopening schools in September.”
District leaders, who have been asking state officials for new guidance since the spring, highlight the need to inform families about fall reopening plans so that families can make their own plans.
“The sooner the state can come up with guidance, the sooner districts can solidify their plans and communicate that to their communities,” Niskayuna school board President Kim Tully said this week. “We appreciate that it’s difficult for families to plan for what schools will look like in the fall and the sooner that can be communicated the better it will be.”
Anibal Soler Jr., Schenectady’s new school superintendent, at his first board meeting on Wednesday, raised the need for state guidelines and said the district would work to return students to school as much as possible.
“Our goal is to reopen, reopen strong and most importantly reopen as much as possible as we can for our kids,” Soler said.
During the Schenectady board meeting, board President Cathy Lewis also highlighted the need for state health guidelines and said she was at a recent event where Kimberly Wilkins, a top state Education Department official and former Albany superintendent, suggested that if she were still a superintendent she would be considering when to go “rogue” and make decisions about the fall without the guidance.
“We might have to endorse rogueness,” Lewis said at the meeting.
Murphy said superintendents in the regional BOCES will make decisions about how to move forward “in the next couple of weeks,” looking to build common practices across the Capital Region.
“Our goal is to have every kid back in school, but we aren’t going to be unsafe,” Murphy said.
Guidance from the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention released earlier this month could point to where the state rules are headed. Those guidelines call for a “multilayered strategy” of health precautions but say all unvaccinated children ages 2 and up should wear masks inside school buildings, along with any unvaccinated adults. (The vaccine has not yet been made available to children under age 12, effectively all elementary school students.) The federal guidelines also call for three feet of social distancing as long as unvaccinated individuals are wearing masks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this month went a step further and said in their recommendations for schools that all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, should continue to wear masks in school buildings, citing the fact that many young children are not vaccinated in tandem with the challenge schools will have knowing who is and isn’t vaccinated.
In a statement Thursday, Department of Health spokesperson Abigail Barker indicated the department was tracking daily developments in the virus as officials reviewed the federal guidance.
“New York State continues to review the new CDC guidance and daily data outcomes, communicate with education stakeholders across the State and will ultimately make our recommendations for the fall based on what is in the best interest of public health, particularly when it comes to children.”
In their own statement, state Education Department officials last week said they cannot issue education guidelines for the fall “without knowing what health-related parameters and restrictions will be in place.”
“We are working with the relevant offices in state government to facilitate development and distribution of that information,” according to the statement. “Ideally, students should be back in school, in person, this fall so they have ready access to the academic, social and emotional supports provided in our schools.”
The Education Department statement also alluded to the interest of some families to continue with remote learning as many students remain unvaccinated and new strains of the virus continue to circulate.
“We want to maintain and enhance that remote capacity—not to supplant in-person school, but to expand educational opportunities for all,” according to the Education Department statement. “We are having conversations about these issues with stakeholders and will continue to work with our partners across the state to ensure that we have the most up-to-date and reliable information possible in the coming weeks to guide all decisions related to educating our students during the pandemic recovery.”
The decisions health officials have to make aren’t without complexity or potential to stir controversy. Potential mask mandates, in particular, have excited the passions of many parents who have called for the elimination of mask mandates.
The Mohonasen and Broadalbin-Perth school boards have both staked out formal positions against requiring students to wear masks in schools, and some superintendents have said they can manage the school year safely without masks. Bob Lowry of the New York State Council of School Superintendents said some superintendents in the state have suggested tailoring mask requirements based on local infection rates and other on-the-ground factors.
While masking policy may be the more hot-button issue, social-distancing rules are likely to play a bigger role in determining the extent to which districts can actually return all students to in-person learning, Lowry said. With requirements that students were spaced six feet apart in most instances last year, many schools were unable to accommodate all students on any given day. Even the distancing requirements on school buses could be a factor in determining whether districts are able to return all students to schools next year.