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Cuomo: Schools in New York can open, every NY region below COVID infection threshold

Governor Andrew Cuomo's office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that every region in New York state is below the 5% threshold of the COVID-19 transmission rate, and schools in the state can open in the fall. How often kids go to school, or if they go to school, depends on each of the states 700 school districts, which have been submitting their reopening plans to the state Education Department and Department of Health. 

Cuomo called the announcement "great news."

“You look at our infection rate, we are probably in the best situation in the country right now, as incredible as that is,” Cuomo said. “So, if anybody can open schools, we can open schools.”

The Department of Health can disapprove of any reopening plans, submitted by school districts. 127 districts have not submitted plans yet, and an additional 50 districts have either incomplete of deficient plans. School districts cannot reopen without the department’s approval.

If there is a spike in the infection rate between now and schools reopening, then the decision can be revisited, Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he has been inundated with calls from parents and teachers, and there is a significant level of anxiety and concern. School districts now need to do a few things by the end of next week. They have to post their remote learning plans online. They also need to post how students and teachers will be tested and explain how contact tracing will work.

Districts must schedule three discussion sessions with parents to answer questions before August 21.

“Parents need an opportunity to be heard, and the schools should welcome the opportunity to actually explain the plan,” Cuomo said. “The more dialogue the better.”

Cuomo is also asking districts to set up at least one discussion with teachers.

“If the teachers have questions or concerns, let’s get them aired and at a point where everyone is hearing the same thing.”

Cuomo was asked if teachers should be required to come back, even if they don’t feel comfortable. The governor said students can’t be forced to come back. With teachers, he said they have to feel safe.

“The teachers have to agree to go back,” Cuomo said. “There is going to need to be significant discussion, because teachers are raising many issues.”

In a statement, Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teacher union, said a lack of guidance on testing and contact tracing is concerning. 

"No district should consider themselves ready to reopen buildings until their plans are safe and everything in that plan meant to keep the school community safe is implemented," Pallotta said. "Being safe means parents and teachers must be confident in the reopening plan, and it is welcome news that districts must meet with parents and teachers this month. We’re thankful the governor agrees that forcing people back into the classroom when they feel their health is threatened is not what should happen. So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period."

The education advocacy group, Alliance for Quality Education, said the state's plan "has failed before it begins."

"New York has not used the time since school buildings closed in March to make a more informed, thoughtful, or careful plan about how to reopen schools, nor to creatively address the critical issues that emerged in remote learning settings in the spring," said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. "If we had invested in remote learning at the outset, we would have been able to better prepare for more equitable access to remote education now, providing the necessary training and materials for families, students and educators to thrive. Every school district is planning for remote learning in some capacity, yet many families and children still lack devices, high speed internet, and essential services. With just a few weeks left until schools reopen, we are scrambling to resolve issues that we have been aware of for months."

Bob Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Board Association, said he’s happy the governor has given school districts the green light to reopen, but also cautiously optimistic reopening plans will be set and ready to go.

“There has to be trust and comfort with those plans, with the parents, guardians of the students and the teachers and other staff,” Schneider said.

One unknown is if there will be financial help from the federal government. He said the different stimulus plans being debated in Congress have between $70-90 billion to help schools reopen safely.

“We need that money to fund all the resources we need to get this right and allow our students to learn in a hybrid environment and everybody will be safe and healthy because this is a high stakes game,” Schneider said.

He also said districts will need to coordinate testing with their county health departments.

“I don’t see school districts testing every child, every day at this point," Schneider said. "I see them screening, doing temperature checks, looking at them physically, and doing surveys to the household, to the parents and guardians, where they can answer a few questions to see if they are symptomatic.”