Crisis abhors a vacuum too

Health departments should be immune to politics.

Our local school districts, like those across the state, have been waiting all summer for directives from New York State so that, as COVID-19 cases mount, with the Delta variant affecting young people, they can safely open in September.

Tuesday night’s Guilderland School Board meeting — detailed in our front-page story — captures the chaos that can ensue without directives from a trusted authority.

Superintendent Marie Wiles had said at the July school board meeting that the district needs to hear from the state what the requirements will be for social distancing, mask-wearing, using cafeteria spaces, and transportation before it can devise its plan for the upcoming school year.

After all, whether students must be seated three feet apart or six feet apart, like last year, for example, makes all the difference in how classrooms are configured and even on how many students a district can accommodate in person.

Last Thursday, Aug. 5, Timothy Mundell, the superintendent of the rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools, kept his community informed by writing a lengthy account of what BKW families might expect as students continue with in-person learning this school year.

“Although we have been working with general guidelines to get ready for the opening of school,” wrote Mundell, “we have been waiting on specific guidance from the NYS Department of Health and NYS Education Department. So far, we have not received that guidance.”

That very same day, just weeks before schools are to open, the state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, dropped a bombshell.

“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools,” wrote Zucker in his two-sentence statement. “Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments.”

We applaud the immediate response from the state’s education commissioner, Betty Rosa. She asked Zucker to consider his department’s statutory responsibilities as the state agency devoted to protecting public health.

“The circumstances enveloping the Executive Chamber this week should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the Governor’s office for months,” Rosa wrote last week.

By this Tuesday, the growing chorus of calls for Andrew Cuomo’s resignation or impeachment — which should not have affected the state’s health department in fulfilling its duty in advising schools — led Cuomo to announce he would resign.

If Zucker and his department had exercised their duties separately from the executive office all along — following the science, as Cuomo was fond of saying throughout the pandemic — the report on nursing-home deaths would likely have been different.

The science surrounding a new virus is, of course, ever-evolving, which is why the expertise of a health department is needed as a trusted authority. Misinformation fills the vacuum.

This week, children’s health and safety were still being ignored so Rosa on Tuesday appropriately decided to fill the void. She wrote a letter to school leaders, saying her department would develop a guidance document for schools to open in September.

“Although the Education Department does not have direct jurisdiction over matters of public health, the Department does possess oversight authority for schools, and continues its attempts to engage with the appropriate state and federal agencies on this matter,” she wrote.

Here in Albany County, we feel fortunate to have as health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, who does indeed follow the science, and to have as county executive, Daniel McCoy, who throughout the pandemic released accurate reports on data amassed by the health department.

Currently, we commend Whalen, with the lack of earlier state directives, for writing a detailed letter last week to school superintendents and principals outlining guidance for opening schools based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Those are the same recommendations that Rosa says the education department will follow.

Whalen wrote that she is working with the Capital Region’s local health department commissioners and directors, another positive sign. The letter stresses that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is now predominant and behaves differently than earlier strains. “It is much more contagious and represents a threat particularly to unvaccinated individuals,” Whalen writes.

Her letter also stresses the importance of children returning to in-person learning with layered prevention strategies in place. This includes indoor masking, testing and screening for COVID-19, ventilation, disinfecting, handwashing, staying home when sick, contact tracing, and quarantining.

The guidance outlined in Whalen’s letter is helpful — even essential as schools now have little time to plan — but it is not mandated.

What worried us was that, without statewide directives, individual school districts would fall prey to abandoning scientifically sound approaches under threat of public pressure.

Since March of 2020 until the state of emergency ended this June, state directives have largely taken the heat off of local leaders. One exception was last January when Cuomo had said that county health departments would determine if high-risk sports would be allowed for schools and recreational leagues after Feb. 1.

Locally, only Rensselaer County immediately allowed high-risk sports. Whalen, together with her counterparts in other nearby counties, decided not to allow high-risk sports until the infection rate decreased to 4 percent. At the time, the rate was a roaring 6.4 percent.

Students and coaches protested, with McCoy asking them to please leave his neighbors alone. But neither Whalen nor McCoy wavered in following the science.

“I have to make sure I did everything in my power to save someone’s life, not gain someone’s vote ...,” McCoy said at the time. He noted that, in the last two months, the county had lost more residents to COVID-19 than it had in the 11 months prior. “I stand by Dr. Whalen … This is about science. This is about the data. It’s not about the politics,” he said.

Eighty-six Albany County residents died of COVID-19 in January.

“Where’s the chant to protect our seniors?” McCoy asked of protesters, alluding to the deaths of elderly residents from the virus.

The unpopular decision was the right one. “What my decision must be is to protect the health of Albany County residents and this is why I made the decision I did …,” Whalen said at the time.

It is unfair to put school officials under this sort of pressure. They are educators and they have their students’ best interest at heart.

But school leaders are not scientists or health experts nor are many of them used to standing up to crowd opposition; rather, they are generally used to listening to members of their communities and working with them.

In a place, say, where “Unmask Our Children” signs dot the lawns in front of houses it would be useful — in fact, essential — to have a state mandate requiring masks in schools. A requirement makes it clear to everyone that rules must be followed.

Educators have enough on their hands implementing the many protocols needed to open schools safely without having to deal with protesters besides.

If the state health department won’t fulfill its duty to the citizens of New York, we are grateful that the State Education Department is willing to come up with directives that will keep our students safe.

We hope in two weeks, when Kathy Hochul becomes governor, she will see that the autonomy of the state’s health department is restored so that, going forward, New Yorkers, in the midst of a continuing pandemic crisis, have an authority they can trust to look out for their safety.

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