With school openings on the horizon, New York is ‘an island in a sea of spread’

ALBANY COUNTY — As the governor has promised to announce by Friday a decision on schools reopening, the message from the county’s health commissioner and from Andrew Cuomo was the same as they spoke to the press on Thursday.

Albany County had just six new cases of COVID-19 since Wednesday and the state, too, continues with low numbers.

New York State and Albany County have been “lucky with leadership,” said Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s health commissioner. “The message has been consistent …,” said Whalen. “We now serve in the country as a bright spot where the infection rates have been maintained to be low.

“It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” Whalen went on. “It doesn’t mean they can’t flare up again,” she said. The county had seen a brief flare-up over the last several weeks after a steady decline from an apex at the end of April.

“This is entirely dependent on your behavior, what happens next,” concluded Whalen.

“New York State is, in some ways, an island in the United States where our numbers are still holding because we work at it every day,” said Cuomo in a conference call with the press on Thursday. “There’s no secret to how a virus spreads. This is mathematics, this is science, this is a function of behavior and activity and we’re now all about protecting our progress even though we’re an island in a sea of spread.”

Cuomo called again on local governments to enforce compliance. “Not informational efforts — I don't need them to hand out brochures; everyone knows the rules,” he said. “It’s enforcing the compliance, not informing the compliance.”

The governor made no announcement on the reopening of schools, a decision he promised by Friday. Cuomo had said earlier the decision will be made for each of the state’s 10 regions based on metrics.

“We’re not going to open any school unless the viral transmission rate says we have the virus under control,” Cuomo said on Thursday. “If the viral transmission rate increases significantly then we will close the schools but there is more to this equation than just the viral transmission rate. The situation is very different across the state because regions are in different positions across the state and parents and teachers have different opinions across the state.”

Contrary to a video posted by the Trump campaign, science has shown that children are not immune to the coronavirus. Facebook removed the campaign video because it violated its rules against misinformation.

On Wednesday, New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers put out a joint statement, demanding that state health officials issue clear protocols for how and when school districts must close their buildings, and how health officials will perform contact tracing and initiate quarantines.

In the event of a positive COVID-19 case, the unions are calling for the immediate closure of that school building and a return to remote learning for 14 days before revisiting whether it is safe for the building to reopen. In addition, the unions are demanding clear statewide directives for how immediate contact tracing is to be conducted and for how mandatory and precautionary quarantining for those who may have been exposed in schools is to be implemented by local health officials.

On Thursday, NYSUT released a poll showing 81 percent of New York school staff members say the health and safety of students and staff should be the deciding factor in reopening schools.

Half of NYSUT members say they are reluctant or unwilling to go back to in-person instruction this fall amid ongoing concerns over the health and safety of reopening school buildings. Of those who say they are not ready, their overwhelming concerns are their personal safety, the safety of their students, and the safety of their colleagues.

“While there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening, NYSUT members have made clear that health and safety needs to drive the decision,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement, announcing the poll results. “We know there are some districts that developed plans by listening to the concerns of educators and others who developed flawed plans that ignore legitimate health and safety needs.”

The Enterprise has written detailed accounts of the plans created by Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

At the end of July, the New York State School Boards Association released a poll showing 71 percent of board members felt their district either could not safely open schools in accordance with state guidelines in the absence of additional state or federal funding (44 percent) or were unsure if they could do so (27 percent). Twenty-nine percent believe schools in their district could reopen safely without the additional aid.

The poll also found that, if cost were not a consideration, three-quarters of school board members support having students return to in-classroom instruction in September full-time (42 percent) or part-time (34 percent). Only 15 percent said students should not go back at all this fall, while 9 percent were not sure.

“It is not just a question of the state or the local school district pronouncing that the schools are going to be open,” said Cuomo on Thursday. “The parents are going to make the ultimate decision on a practical level, right?”

He urged the more than 700 school districts across the state, required to submit their reopening plans last Friday, “Please be consulting and communicating with the parents and the teachers because they are the vital stakeholders. Not only are they vital stakeholders, they are the ultimate determination.”

At the same time, Cuomo pushed again on Thursday for federal funds from the fifth coronavirus stimulus package, delayed as leaders from the Republican House spar with leaders from the Democratic Senate.

“If we do not receive $30 billion from the federal government,” Cuomo said, “if our congressional representatives do not make sure that New York has $30 billion, we’re going to have to take very dramatic action and these dramatic actions, I believe, will be counterproductive.”

Most of the large-city school districts across the nation — most recently, Chicago — have scrapped plans to resume in-person learning in September. New York City remains one of the few large-city districts planning to reopen in September.

Whalen said on Thursday, “We do not live in a risk-free environment … The risk in New York State because of this concerted effort has gone down … So decisions are being made that may be different than in other states.”

She concluded, “Please know, the future is in your hands.”


Plea to wear masks

Whalen also renewed her call on Thursday for residents to wear masks, terming mask-wearing in public “one of the cornerstones” that has allowed other countries to successfully reopen their economies.

Whalen said community-wide mask-wearing “based on evidence” is shown to lower the infection rate.

As a physician for 28 years, Whalen said, she is skilled in reviewing scientific literature. “This is an evidence-based strategy …,” she said of mask-wearing. “It will enable us to move forward in this uncertain environment.

“Until such time as we get a safe, widely available and effective vaccine for COVID, this is going to be part of the strategy.”

She reiterated the other components of the strategy: staying six feet from others, avoiding large gatherings, and washing hands frequently.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said, “If you don’t want to wear a mask, just stay away from everyone.”


New numbers

Albany County now has 2,328 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 557 residents under quarantine.

Among the six new cases, one is a health-care worker, four had close contact with a person that tested positive for COVID-19, and one did not have a clear source of transmission.

The five-day average for new daily positives has decreased to 7.8 from 8 on Wednesday.

Albany County currently has 42 active cases, up from 37. So far, 7,728 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,286 of them had tested positive and recovered, an increase of one.

Three county residents are currently hospitalized with coronavirus disease 2019, one more than on Wednesday. The hospitalization rate has ticked up to 0.12 percent from 0.08 percent.

The COVID-19 death toll for the county remains at 128.


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