Governor: ‘All schools can reopen’

— From Guilderland Central School District

Desks will be six feet apart in Guilderland classrooms when schools reopen in September. The governor announced on Friday that schools across the state can return to in-person learning in the fall, but added some requirements.

ALBANY COUNTY — Schools across New York State can open in September.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s much-anticipated announcement today came as no surprise since all 10 regions met the metric he set of the COVID-19 infection rate being at 5 percent or less on a 14-day rolling average.

The Capital Region in recent days has had an infection rate below 1 percent.

The state’s health department will review the plans that school districts were required to complete by July 31.

Of the 749 districts that had to submit plans, 127 have not done so and an additional 50 plans are either “incomplete on their face or deficient,” said Cuomo in a conference call with the press on Friday. The health department will complete its review of the plans over the weekend, Cuomo said.

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

Cuomo noted “a significant level of anxiety and concern” among parents and teachers. “If teachers don’t come back, then you can’t really open the schools,” he said. “If the parents don’t send their students, then you’re not really opening the schools.”

Cuomo said he is concerned about “the equity in the remote-learning process.” With the sudden shutdown of schools in March, many students were left without access to computers or the internet for remote learning. Cuomo is therefore asking districts to post their remote-learning plans on their websites.

Schools also have to post a COVID-19 “testing plan” for their district so teachers and students know how testing will be done. Similarly, the schools must post their plan for contract-tracing, which will be conducted after students test positive for coronavirus disease 2019.

Finally, Cuomo said that school districts must have discussions with parents — “three opportunities between now and Aug. 21” for most districts while the “big five school districts” must hold five sessions by then. The sessions can be online.

By the same date, Aug. 21, he said, “I’m also asking the school districts to set up at least one discussion just with the teachers where they go through the plan and everybody is in one conversation: teachers, administrators, and they discuss exactly what is in the plan. And if the teachers have questions or concerns, let’s get them aired and let’s get them to a point where everybody is hearing the same thing.”

Cuomo concluded of New York, “You look at our infection rate; we are probably in the best situation in the country right now — as incredible as that is. If anyone can open schools, we can open schools. That’s true for every region in the state. Period.”

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said on Friday that, during the pandemic, the number of child-abuse incidents reported to the county has declined. He attributed this in part to children not being in school where teachers can see signs of abuse and are required to report it. The reopening of schools will benefit those children, he said, giving them a stable environment for much of the day.

The statewide school boards association as well as the state’s largest teachers’ union supported the reopening of in-person learning but with caveats.

“Health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings. Viral infection rates tell only one part of the story …,” said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement on Friday. “Among the concerns that remain 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 ….

“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. So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period,” he concluded.

School boards “understand that it may be necessary to turn quickly to other options for remote or hybrid instruction if community sentiment or if staff and student safety considerations make that the prudent choice,” said Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, in a statement on Friday.

He also said, while schools welcome continued conversations with parents and teachers, “We must note that any plans we craft will be worth little if we lack the federal funding to carry out the plans we all are working so hard to put together.”


Plea for funds

Cuomo announced he, along with Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — all Democrats — are sending a letter to New York’s congressional delegations that federal assistance for states in the fifth coronavirus stimulus packages is critical.

“As you consider legislation to provide financial relief to states and local governments, be advised that the minimum needed for the State of New York to cover its operating deficit while simultaneously promoting public health and safety is $30 billion over a period of two years,” says the letter. “Failure to provide these essential funds would leave our state and every one of its communities in a precarious financial position.”

The HEROES  [Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions] Act passed by the Democratic House of Representatives includes trillions of dollars for state and local governments while the HEALS [Health, Economic Assistance, Liability protection and Schools] Act put forth by the Republican Senate does not.

Similarly, at his Friday morning press briefing, McCoy, a Democrat, said of a federal stimulus package, “If this doesn’t pass by Monday, we’re not getting any more funds.” He noted that Congress goes on break until the end of September.

McCoy also said that the proposal from the Senate Republicans does not benefit the counties. 

“We’re on the front lines,” McCoy said. Albany County has paid for added services in the midst of the pandemic, ranging from care for the homeless to testing for COVID-19 and then tracing and overseeing quarantine of contacts to prevent its spread.

“We’re paying for all this,” said McCoy, who has frequently noted that, as sales-tax revenues have fallen off, the county is also in a fiscal crisis.


New numbers

As of Friday morning, Albany County has 2,339 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 11 since yesterday.

Among the new cases is one healthcare worker or someone living in a congregate setting, five with close contacts to positive cases, one out-of-state traveler, and four who did not have a clear source of transmission.

Additionally, the number of people under mandatory quarantine has ticked up from 557 to 559.

The five-day average for new daily positives has increased slightly to 8.8 from 7.8. There are currently 44 active cases, up from 42.

So far, 7,797 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,295 of them had tested positive and recovered, an increase of nine.

Three county residents remain hospitalized with COVID-19, with one in an intensive-care unit. The hospitalization rate remains at 0.12 percent.

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


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