State officials by the end of the first week of August will decide whether schools can reopen to students this fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
The comments came the same day President Donald Trump escalated threats to withhold federal funding from states where schools do not reopen to students in the fall -- a threat panned by both Cuomo and New York's top education officials.
Cuomo during a press briefing clarified the timeline for making decisions about whether to reopen schools and asserted his authority as the final word on the matter. Cuomo said state reopening guidance, which educators have been awaiting for weeks, would be finalized by July 13; districts would then need to submit reopening plans to state officials by July 31; state officials will then decide bu Aug. 7 whether schools can reopen.
“We are doing everything we can to be ready in September. We very much want to open up schools in September, we very much want kids back in school,” Cuomo said. “Why not make a decision today? Because it is not intelligent to make a decision today.”
Cuomo said he couldn't make a decision about reopening until he had a clearer sense of the pandemic and infection rates closer to when schools would actually be asked to reopen. But he said districts have said they need to know whether to move ahead with reopening plans by the end of the first week of August – about a month before the scheduled start of the new school year. While he was not definitive, Cuomo suggested the state may allow regional differences in whether schools reopen based on differing infection rates across the state.
Cuomo also used the press briefing to dismiss comments from President Trump, who this week has ramped up calls to reopen schools this fall, and on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that did not reopen to students in the fall. While the vast majority of education spending in New York comes from state and local sources, a smaller share of federal dollars do target the state's neediest schools and school lunch programs. It's not clear whether or how federal dollars could be withheld from districts that do not open to students in the fall, but state Education Department officials on Wednesday said "any decision on the reopening of school buildings should be based on the best science, data and guidance available from state and federal health professionals."
"The rhetoric from Washington D.C. calling on schools to be fully open with in-person classes this fall regardless of the status of the COVID-19 pandemic is a callous disregard for human health and safety, and puts the lives of those we have worked tirelessly to protect in jeopardy," state Education Chancellor Betty Rosa and interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said in a joint statement.
Next week is likely to bring more clarity to what a fall reopening would look like as the Board of Regents is set to discuss initial guidance from the state Education Department at Monday's board meeting. The department guidance will be based on input from four regional meetings conducted in recent weeks.
The specifics of the guidance, and any accompanying regulatory changes, approved by the Regents will be watched closely by teachers, administrators, parents and countless others interested in what a return to school will look like.
After Cuomo's remarks Wednesday, New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers union, outlined its priorities for a return to school buildings, focusing on the health and safety of students, families, educators and other school staff. The union called for the following: access to protective gear for all students and staff members; cleaning and disinfecting protocols; six feet of social distancing mandated in all buildings; accommodations for at-risk students and staff to minimize possible exposure to infection; provision of mental health services; "equitable access to a well-rounded education for every student."
Local districts have already set out planning to reopen schools in September, beginning to sort out the complicated logistics of social distancing in schools and preparing to operate with a combination of both in-person and remote instruction.