Capital Region

Without state guidance Capital Region school districts prepare to reopen

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Sharon Sgambati and her 9-year-old son are both COVID long-haulers–people who still battle with COVID symptoms– after the family of four caught the virus in September. 

With Shenendehowa schools preparing to open in about a month she’s urging her children’s district to take precautions as the pandemic continues and as delta variant cases continue to escalate. 

One way the district can ensure safety, she said, is by having students wear masks. 

“We’re one of the lucky ones,” she said. “We didn’t die from it. I spent one day in the hospital not weeks, so we’re the lucky ones, but to still be dealing with it a year later no one should have to go through this and a simple way to help that is by wearing masks in school.”

That decision, along with numerous other reopening measures are now left up to districts after the state Department of Health and governor’s office indicated they would not provide reopening guidelines. 

“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools,” said Howard Zucker, the state Department of Health commissioner in a release Thursday afternoon. “Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments.”

The governor’s office did not return a request for comment on why the state only now indicated to school districts that guidance wouldn’t be forthcoming — more than a month after the emergency declaration ended. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines for schools include masks for all students, staff, teachers and visitors to schools, regardless of the person’s vaccination station, according to the organization’s website.

The CDC also added on Wednesday a recommendation that people who are vaccinated but are exposed to someone suspected or confirmed of having COVID get tested three to five days after they are exposed, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms. 

Shenendehowa School District did not return a request for comment. 

However, other school districts in the Capital Region indicated that all 24 districts are communicating on how to proceed and relying on county health departments and CDC recommendations as well. 

‘We’re working to have aligned plans,” said Karen Corona, the Schenectady City School District director of communications and public information.

She said the plan is for a full reopening, but details are still to come. She said no decisions have been made on mask-wearing or social distancing. 

“I believe the superintendent will be discussing it at our next board meeting, which will be Aug. 18,” she said. 

Mohonasen Central School District Superintendent Shannon Shine was shocked and frustrated by the state’s announcement. 

“The locals are thrust wholeheartedly into an area we shouldn’t be put,” Shine said. “We are not medical professionals. I’m not a doctor.” 

He said it also looks as if county health departments can only give recommendations, but not mandate anything either. 

“So basically this is falling flat and square on 700 plus school districts in New York state,” he said. “I very much don’t appreciate it. It’s almost a dereliction of duty by the executive and the New York State Department of Health.”

“There are advantages to having statewide rules to reduce confusion and in some cases reduce controversy,” said Bob Lowry, the deputy director for the state Council of School Superintendents. 

“Now we’re in a situation where we also have to establish what is the authority of local health departments, what might they require, what could be left entirely to the discretion of school districts.” 

He said across much of the state school district and local health departments have developed strong relationships and had lots of practice “consulting and responding.”

Over the next few weeks, Shine said the district will regroup, determine how to proceed and create a reopening plan. Part of that process he said means continuing to work with local health departments in the Capital Region, the Capital Region BOCES and even the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES consisting of another 31 districts. 

He said the local departments of health have suggested a tiered mitigation approach, which aligns with recent CDC guidelines. 

However, Shine said that recommendation may not be a one-size-fits-all for every district. He plans to talk to staff, teachers, parents of the district and the school board. 

The school board had previously passed a resolution asking for more flexibility last school year with the state’s mask guidance. 

He said right now he’s checking with the district attorneys on whether masks are federally required on busses under the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

“I will advise that we should think carefully before ignoring direct medical advice from places like the CDC and I’m also going to get direct medical advice from our physician,” he said.

But Shine did not go as far as saying he would recommend masks, noting he was waiting for more information to come in. 

One thing Shine does know for sure and is overjoyed about is having in-person learning for almost every student. Students with medical exemptions would take virtual classes. 

Shine also said the district will start with a 3-foot social distancing maximum. 

“Say there’s a high school class, Algebra, and the class would hold 24 students at 3 feet but I have an enrollment of 27, I’m probably going to forego the 3 feet to accommodate those three students,” Shine said. 

While the Niskayuna School District didn’t return a request for comment, on Aug. 3 the district published information on what actions it would be taking this fall. Those measures include 3-foot social distancing when people are masked and 6-foot social distancing where mask-wearing cannot take place, such as eating lunch. 

Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa has sent a letter asking Zucker to examine the state Department of Health’s duty on protecting public health, according to a press release from the state Department of Education.  

The department said under the states Public Health Law the Department of Health has the authority to regulate and oversee the “abatement of nuisances affecting or likely to affect public health as well as supervising and advising any local unit of government and the public health officials thereof within the state in the performance of their official duties.”

Right now the biggest nuisance facing the state and school districts is COVID, the department said. 

“There is an urgent need for timely advice and supervision flowing from the State Department of Health to local and school officials as they navigate these uncertain times,” the release states. “The circumstances enveloping the Executive Chamber this week should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the Governor’s office for months.”

 

 

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