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Cuomo says schools can reopen, but leaves the details to them

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Schools across New York can open this fall for in-person instruction, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday, noting that the coronavirus infection rate was low enough for students to return to class in the coming weeks.

But his announcement does not mean that the state’s more than 700 school districts will reopen. Cuomo said superintendents and municipal leaders will have to decide whether to reopen and that their plans to do so must be approved by the state’s education and health departments.

Schools can decide to open, he added, as long as they are in a region where the average rate of positive coronavirus tests is below 5 percent, a threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.

"By our infection rates, all school districts can open everywhere in the state,” Cuomo said. “Every region is below the threshold we established."

The announcement came as school districts around the state were to have met a deadline last week to submit reopening plans. There were 127 districts that missed the cutoff, and another 50 that the state deemed incomplete.

Most school districts in Monroe County, including the Rochester City School District, proposed a hybrid schedule in which students would attend classes in-person part of the week and remotely the rest of the week.



Guidelines were released in July by the state Education Department that set a minimum standard for schools to reopen. Students and staff will be required to wear masks or face coverings, for example. They will also have to maintain an appropriate physical distance from others as much as possible, meaning reducing the number of students in each classroom.

Many districts sought to utilize larger facilities — like gymnasiums and cafeterias — as learning areas to maintain distance while preserving class sizes.

Students won’t be tested for the coronavirus before heading back to class, but staff will be trained to recognize symptoms of the disease. If someone shows signs of the virus, they’ll be placed in isolation until they leave the building and can secure a test.

News of the governor’s announcement was met with trepidation by the state teachers’ union. Unions in general have raised concerns about reopening, citing worries about safety and unpreparedness.

“Among the concerns that remain,” read a statement from the New York State United Teachers following the announcement, “is the lack of guidance on specific procedures for closure, testing, and contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case in a school.

“Right now, there may be some areas where parents and educators are confident in their district’s plans, but in many others, we know they aren’t.”

The statement concluded on an optimistic tone, calling it “welcome news” that districts would be required to meet with parents and teachers this month to discuss their reopenings.

Many districts have expressed concern over reopening without additional funding from the state, given the expense of some of the new guidelines.

The New York State School Boards Association surveyed school board members from around the state last month and found that, while there’s a desire to get back to in-person learning, balancing that with the new requirements will be difficult.
“Board members also are cautious about the potential health and safety consequences for students and staff, and they are very concerned that insufficient resources will undermine prospects for getting this right,” said Robert Schneider, the group’s executive director.

That comes at a time when the state is considering significant funding cuts to school districts because of the coronavirus. New York is facing a $30 billion budget deficit over the next two years because of lost revenue, and has spent $5 billion in its response to the disease.

Cuomo has called for billions of dollars in relief from the federal government, but Congress has reached a stalemate on the latest stimulus bill.

Republicans, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have largely rejected calls from Democrats for aid to state governments in the wake of the coronavirus. The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, has already passed legislation to deliver that funding.

Federal lawmakers were expected to leave Washington for the month on Friday. Without an agreement on the stimulus, they’re not scheduled to return until next month.

Includes reporting from WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.

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