Districts have 2 weeks to submit reopening plans

ALBANY COUNTY — Local school districts, like more than 700 across the state, have until July 31 to submit plans for reopening.

The schools were closed by executive order in mid-March to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The state Department of Health on Monday released interim in-person instruction guidance for New York’s elementary and secondary schools. Also on Monday, the state’s Education Department issued its own broad reopening guidelines, with full guidance released Wednesday. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that schools will be allowed to reopen in the fall if they are located in a region, like the Capital Region, already in Phase 4 and the region’s infection rate stays below 5 percent, based on a rolling 14-day average.

“Everybody wants to reopen schools, but you only reopen if it’s safe to reopen, and that’s determined by the data ...,” Cuomo said in making the announcement. “If you don’t have the virus under control, then you can’t reopen. We’re not going to use our children as the litmus test and we’re not going to put our children in a place where their health is endangered. It’s that simple.”

Schools will close if the region in which they are located has a rolling seven-day average rate of infection greater than 9 percent after Aug. 1, the governor said.

The state’s COVID-19 regional dashboard doesn’t track rolling 14-day rate-of-infection; rather, it tracks a seven-day rolling average. 

The last time there was an average seven-day period in the Capital Region when 5 percent of coronavirus tests were positive was May 13 — the last time the infection rate had a seven-day rolling average that was 9 percent or higher was May 5; as of July 12, the Capital Region’s percentage of positive coronavirus tests was just 1 percent.

The interim guidance for in-person instruction put out Monday by the Department of Health said that “an acceptable face covering,” either cloth-based or surgical mask, is “strongly recommended to be worn by all individuals at all times but is required to be worn any time or place that individuals cannot maintain appropriate social distancing.”

But the guidance also states that students should be allowed to remove the face coverings “during meals, instruction, and for short breaks so long as they maintain appropriate social distance.” 

Schools “must maintain protocols and procedures” for social distancing, the guidance states, meaning either six feet of space in every direction between individuals or the use of “appropriate” physical barriers.

“To ensure equity in education,” the guidance says that schools should focus their efforts on getting all students back in the classroom. But given COVID-19’s “dynamic nature of local community transmission,” the guidance states that hybrid learning — a combination of in-person and online learning — may be needed at times throughout the year. And in planning for this, the guidance says, “school plans should indicate if certain students will be prioritized to return to in-person instruction first or more frequently based on educational or other needs … .”

And to “maximize in-person instruction,” the guidance states that schools should “consider measures that can be implemented to decrease density,” like adjusting class hours; staggering student schedules to reduce hallway and building congestion; finding “alternative spaces in the community,” which would allow for more in-person learning; and “shifting” the “design” of student schedules to accommodate social-distancing measures, for example, switching younger students to full-time in-person learning while allowing a hybrid learning model for older students.

Schools should also “cohort” students, the guidance says, a process where students would be placed into pre-assigned, self-contained, and size-limited groups. Additionally, the state guidance says that schools “should enact measures to prevent intermingling between cohorts,” and that faculty “may instruct more than one cohort,” if social-distancing guidelines are maintained.

The guidance says schools “must implement mandatory health screenings,” specifically, each person will have to have his or his temperature checked daily. 

When it comes to cleaning, disinfection, and hygiene schools “must adhere to” guidance from both the state’s Department of Health as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools are responsible for training all students, staff, and faculty on proper hand and respiratory hygiene. They also “must maintain logs that include the date, time, and scope of cleaning and disinfection, as well as identify cleaning and disinfection frequency for each facility and area type and assign responsibility to staff,” according to the state guidance.


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