Gov. Andrew Cuomo formally gave schools the green light to reopen on Friday, saying the coronavirus infection rate was low enough in New York for students to return to class in the coming weeks.
But students and staff will have a very different experience at schools this year, with new precautions in place to prevent the disease from spreading.
"By our infection rates, all school districts can open everywhere in the state,” Cuomo said. “Every region is below the threshold we established."
Most school districts around the state have sent plans to Cuomo’s office in recent weeks on how to safely reopen next month. Those plans have largely varied by district based on their capacity and the resources available to them.
State Sen. Shelley Mayer, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said during an interview on Friday that, as schools develop plans that would allow some students to continue learning remotely, the state should help parents address issues that might come with that option.
For one, Mayer said, broadband internet access isn’t available everywhere, and some parents won’t have the bandwidth or technology for multiple children to learn remotely.
But child care could also become a major issue in the near future for parents who can’t work from home, but also don’t want to send their kids to school. Some districts are also considering arrangements that would keep students at home for part of the week.
“We need a real integrated conversation about childcare and after school for parents who are working, you're not going to be able to stay home on the days that the children are supposed to be home,” Mayer said.
Cuomo said Friday that districts will be required to hold a series of meetings over the next two weeks with parents and teachers to lay out the reopening process. Most districts will be required to hold three meetings with parents, while larger districts will have to hold five.
New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, welcomed the news that districts would have to meet with parents and teachers to discuss their plans. Andy Pallotta, the union’s president, said districts should consider a phased-in reopening.
“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,” Pallotta said. “So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it.”
Districts will also be required to post their plans for screening students, testing for the virus, and contact tracing online for parents and teachers to review.
Guidelines were released in July by the state Education Department to guide districts on reopening, setting a minimum standard for schools to follow for reopening.
Students and staff will all be required to wear masks or face coverings, for example. They’ll also have to maintain an appropriate social distance from others as much as possible, meaning schools will have to reduce the number of students in each classroom.
In other instances, districts will have to utilize other space to serve students without cutting class sizes. Some districts have discussed using the school’s larger facilities — like gymnasiums and cafeterias — as learning areas to maintain distance while preserving class sizes.
Specific plans will vary by district, but some schools may choose to stagger students each week to reduce density. That means some students may be asked to learn from home for part of the week, and attend in-person learning other days.
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.
That’s caused concern for some parents, who don’t want to take the risk of sending their children back into school. Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State Parent-Teacher Association, said educators should respect that choice.
“It's really important, I think, as an education community and us all that we really support parents and families right now,” Belokopitsky said. “They're the ones that have to make this decision for their child. “
Schools 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, R-KY, 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.