CAPITAL REGION -- School buildings and college facilities across the state will stay closed for the remainder of this school year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
The state's thousands of school buildings have been shut since mid-March as educators and students quickly transitioned to remote education amid stay-at-home orders. That remote education will continue for the rest of the school year, but teachers and students will be unable to gather in classrooms this school year.
Cuomo signed an executive order Friday that also set a June 9 school budget and school board election, which will be held by absentee voting only. Each district must send out a postcard notice to district residents detailing the date of the election and how residents can participate. Districts must also provide every eligible voter with an absentee ballot with a postage paid return envelope. The order also eliminates "any minimum threshold of signatures" required for school board candidates to get their name on the ballot.
Cuomo said a decision on whether school districts will be allowed to hold in-person summer school programs would be announced by the end of May as state officials begin to grapple with how to manage a litany of summer activities like camps and other outdoor recreation.
School districts and colleges will be expected to submit reopening plans that would need state approval, Cuomo said, indicating districts would need to prepare for social distancing while students are on school buses, in classrooms and at the school cafeteria, among countless other precautions. He said the plans would depend on when schools will ultimately reopen.
Cuomo acknowledged the enormity of the undertaking and said it was not possible to institute the types of safety precautions necessary to reopen schools this spring.
"We must protect our children," Cuomo said at his daily press briefing. "[Districts] should start preparing their plans now because this is going to be a real exercise: How does a school socially distance?"
While Cuomo didn't delve into details of what the reopening plans would include, he listed issues such as: monitoring for spread of COVID-19; instilling confidence in parents that schools are safe; organizing extra-curricular activities; addressing the needs of the special student population; and ensuring student mental health is strong.
District officials, coordinated through regional BOCES, have started to plan for a return to school. The Capital Region BOCES, for instance, is looking to make joint purchases of personal protective equipment for school staff and has outlined various issues districts will need to plan for, including arrival and dismissal procedures, communication with families, transportation concerns and much more.
The state Education Department on Wednesday announced plans to establish a statewide task force of school and district leaders, teachers, parents and others to help guide school reopenings. The task force will work with the state Department of Health and make recommendations to the governor's own reopening advisory board.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has put us all in a place where we are required to make difficult but necessary decisions to protect ourselves and our loved ones," state education Chancellor Betty Rosa and Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said in a joint statement after Cuomo's announcement. "Closing schools for the remainder of the school year is the right one to protect New York's students, teachers and school staff."
Groups that advocate on behalf of education expressed support for the decision to keep school buildings closed for the rest of the school year, noting the size of the challenge of ensuring the safety of students, teachers and other school staff.
"The governor's decision today, in our view, was the only responsible choice," Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said in a prepared statement Friday.
Cuomo said it was still too early to know when schools actually would reopen.
"There is no decision on the fall, because the fall is a long time away," Cuomo said.