The governor reveals the metrics that will guide a possible regional reopening of New York schools
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday revealed new details of the state plan for reopening schools this fall in regions with low COVID-19 infection rates.
Schools will be allowed to reopen in regions that are in Phase 4 of the state’s economic reopening and have a daily infection rate that remains 5% or lower over a 14-day average, Cuomo said during a press briefing. The state will announce its initial decision on each region during the first week of August.
But if the COVID-19 numbers worsen in a region prior to the first day of classes, schools will not be allowed to reopen, Cuomo added. Schools will stay closed if a regional infection rate is greater than 9% on a seven-day average.
Cuomo compared the school plan to the data-driven approach to reopening businesses in New York after the months-long shutdown that was intended to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s the way we’ve done the economic reopening,” he said. “It’s purely on the numbers … it’s on the science.”
As of Monday, all of the regions outside of New York City would meet the standards to reopen schools. New York City would meet the metrics, but is not yet in Phase 4.
Cuomo warned that surging COVID-19 cases in many states threatened to cause spikes in New York in coming weeks.
“All our numbers are good…bad news is we have to keep them that way and there are challenges,” he said.
The state Health Department released health and safety guidelines for reopening schools late Monday afternoon. Those safety requirements will be combined with wide-ranging guidelines developed by the state Education Department for the state Board of Regents. A joint document is due to be released Wednesday.
Districts are due to get reopening plans to Albany by July 31. These plans must be on districts' websites by the same date, the state Board of Regents said Monday morning.
The Board of Regents also released a preview of their guidance. As of now, they are requiring districts to keep planning for three possibilities: in-person instruction, remote learning or a combination of the two.
Districts must develop scheduling plans for all three models. Even if schools reopen, districts must be prepared to return to remote learning on short notice if the coronavirus situation should change.
The Regents laid out some key rules for health and safety, as well. At the top of the list: Students and teachers who return to classrooms will be required to wear masks. Officials acknowledged that masks could pose an issue for young students and special education students, and said that face shields could be an alternative.
Schools also must develop plans to “maximize social distancing whenever possible.” No further details were given about how to do so or what maximum social distancing might look like, but the Health Department's 23-page document defined appropriate social distance as six feet between all individuals.
The Health Department's guidance also mandated temperature checks for all staff and students. Anyone with a temperature above 100 must be denied entry or sent home.
The Regents presentation did not mention temperature checks, but said districts have to train staff to spot COVID-19 symptoms and conduct health screenings.
The full guidance will address how schools without nurses can best follow the health and safety procedures, said Assistant Commissioner Kathleen DeCataldo.
How to transport students safety is a key concern of school district officials. Monday's presentation did not say if students must social distance on buses, but said students must wear masks and social distance at bus stops and while getting off a bus. Buses must be regularly cleaned and disinfected.
The Regents' preview said that every district must develop its own plan for transportation.
Monday’s presentation stressed the importance of students’ social and emotional well being, saying it should be districts’ “top priority” during the transition into a new school year. Schools are encouraged to build teams focused on that priority and to consider a “prolonged orientation or transition period” for students before they dive into academic work.
Once academic work begins, the guidance’s primary focus is on making sure teachers and students interact daily in some form. Many parents across New York have complained that their children did not have enough interaction with teachers during the spring.
Schools are expected to maintain continuity of instruction, based on the state's learning standards, in all three potential learning models: remote, in-person and hybrid.
“Most importantly, there has to be substantive daily interaction between students and their teachers,” Assistant Commissioner Marybeth Casey. “We heard that loud and clear.”
The Regents acknowledged that technological inequality continues to plague remote learning.
Interim state Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe said districts must inventory the technology needs of all students and provide wifi hotspots where necessary. The presentation said that districts must provide devices and Internet access to students and teachers who lack it “to the extent practicable.”
Regent Roger Tilles from Long Island said that the state has to press the federal government to make wifi available to all, “like water.”
Districts will be required to report their attendance to the state, and schools are responsible for coming up with a mechanism to gauge not only attendance but daily student engagement. They must have plans in place to reach and support students who are chronically absent.
Regent Lester Young from Brooklyn pointed out that there is a major difference between taking attendance and measuring instructional contact between teachers and students, and that districts must track academic interaction. “There is no substitute for that contact with the teacher,” she said.
Schools will be allowed to rethink the way they utilize space if they reopen. They must continue to meet ventilation requirements in buildings, and SED will be expediting reviews of any COVID-19 related facilities projects.
The Regents' guidance will also require schools to:
• Have socially distanced fire and lockdown drills.
• Provide services to special education students regardless of setting, prioritizing in-person services for high-need students and preschool students.
• Find ways to engage English Language Learners and their families in their preferred language.
• Help students to participate in physical activity under the direction of a teacher, regardless of school setting.
• Must provide meals to enrolled students daily, even for students not in the building.
• The Education Department developed its guidance after holding four regional meetings online in June. The meetings included teachers, parents, administrators, students and other school staff. More than 1,600 people participated statewide.