Week XXII: Schools make plans to reopen as local government leaders seek federal funds

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“It’s been my passion working with children and I wanted to make a difference in the community where I was born and raised,” said Demetris Fullard who owns Infinite Care Child Care Center on Quail Street in Albany. The center is licensed for 67 children but enrollment plummeted to a quarter of that because of the pandemic. Fullard got a grant from the Center for Economic Growth, which allowed her center to stay open until she got funds from the federal Payroll Protection Program. She said it was important to stay open so parents who were essential workers had a safe place for their children.

ALBANY COUNTY — The push for federal funds to help state and local governments continued this week while much of the focus locally and across the state has been on schools reopening.

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday termed New York State “an island in a sea of spread” before making his announcement on Friday that schools across the state, with approved plans, can reopen in September.

The announcement came against a backdrop in which a research team at the University of Florida isolated live virus from aerosols collected at a distance of seven to 16 feet from patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is further than the six feet recommended in social-distancing guidelines. Although not yet vetted by peer review, the findings have raised concern about school reopenings.

At the same time, the Trump campaign had posted a video, indicating children are immune to the coronavirus while science has shown otherwise. Facebook removed the campaign video because it violated its rules against misinformation.

Cuomo’s much-anticipated announcement on reopening schools 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; on Tuesday, it was 0.7 percent.

“This is not Georgia,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen on Monday.

Videos went viral on social media recently of a high school in Paulding County, Georgia, showing students in crowded hallways, not wearing masks. After a cluster of COVID-19 cases, the school switched to remote learning. And more than 900 students and staff in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District were quarantined this week.

Georgia’s positivity rate is over 10 percent, Whalen said on Wednesday. “One-percent positivity is much lower,” she said of New York’s rate.

Whalen said that education about and compliance with protocols like wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet from others was higher in New York State than elsewhere.

She also called “really laudable” the plans that educators have worked so hard on to reopen schools. “While we cannot say this is a completely risk-free environment, we’re in a pretty good place,” said Whalen. “We’re probably in the best place possible.”

On Wednesday, Whalen said the 21 new cases of COVID-19 in Albany County is “a little bit bigger than we’ve seen in a couple of days so we will be following that along.”

Her department has been planning with school districts, she said, adding, “I know this continues to be a source of anxiety and concern for a lot of parents.”

An Aug. 7 poll from Brainly showed that nationwide, 78 percent of students, up from 68 percent a month ago, said they are against fully starting school in-person. Of the New York State respondents, 77 percent are against full reopening with 42 percent favoring remote learning and 35 percent favoring hybrid, which combines in-person and remote learning.

Whalen on Wednesday said of reopening schools, “Of course this will be a very dynamic process. Of course, we will have to be very vigilant. Of course, there’s going to have to be a lot of ongoing communication back and forth. But the reassurance is the county health department will be investigating every single case.”

Whalen said her department would continue to use the strategies successfully employed over the summer when there were cases at day-care centers or school programs.

“We made sure the case was excluded, that contacts were quarantined, and that contacts were tested,” she said. “We were able to throw out that net and made sure there weren’t others at risk.”

In more populous counties downstate, health departments aren’t able to investigate every single case, Whalen said.

She concluded, “We continue to have that commitment to the community that we will investigate every single case and take appropriate action.”

The state’s health department will review the plans that school districts were required to complete by July 31. Of the state’s 749 districts, 107 had not submitted plans, the governor said on Monday, releasing a list of those districts. If those districts have not submitted plans by Friday, Aug. 14, they will not be able to provide in-person learning this year, Cuomo said.

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

In making his announcement on Friday, Cuomo outlined several requirements school districts have to follow. Concerned about equity, he said districts have 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 three discussions with parents by 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, districts must each have a separate session to discuss reopening plans with their teachers.

The Guilderland schools have scheduled three online sessions for parents: Aug. 18 at 7 p.m., Aug. 19 at 10 a.m., and Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. with details on the district website.

“The main arbiter here of whether a school district has an intelligent plan to reopen and whether people have confidence in that district’s plan: It’s going to be the parents and it’s going to be the teachers, and that requires discussion, and that’s going to be a dialogue,” Cuomo said on Monday during a conference call with the press.

“You’re not going to dictate to parents that they have to send their children. They don’t have to send their child. The parents are responsible for the health and safety of the child, and they’re not going to send the child if they don’t believe the plan makes sense.”

He also said, “A teacher is not going to come back into the classroom if they think the classroom is not safe, and that’s right. The school district has to have that dialogue.”

 

Funds

Like county and state governments, schools are facing added costs as well as declining revenues — sales taxes and other fees have declined as the economy slowed — because of the pandemic.

The New York State School Boards Association released a poll at the end of July 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.

Throughout this week, as in previous weeks, both Cuomo and Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy have pushed for federal funds.

Cuomo announced he, along with Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — all Democrats — sent 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 included 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 did not.

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.

On Monday, after President donal Trump had circumvented Congress, issuing executive orders to award federal funds without legislative approval, Cuomo called into question the legality and practicality of that strategy.

He held a joint press conference with Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear — a Democrat in a red state — to continue his push for federal funding for states. When the pandemic began, Cuomo said, the lack of funding was “a blue-state problem” as the states hardest hit were largely Democratic.

“That’s no longer true. It’s now a blue and red problem, Texas, Florida, etcetera. States have expended a lot of money to deal with COVID,” Cuomo said.

He said New York State needs $30 billion over the next two years. He said, too, “There will be no economic recovery without assistance to the state governments.”

Cuomo said of Trump, “His executive order actually would increase the cost on states.” With unemployment insurance at $400 per person, and the state having to pay a quarter of that, it would cost New York $4 billion by December, said Cuomo, adding, “That’s handing the drowning man an anchor.”

Cuomo also said, “My advice to the president is: When you are in a hole, stop digging.”

Beshear said, “The current form where states would be expected to do a 25-percent match is something virtually no state can afford or if they break down the current version can afford for very long.”

The White House has since backed off the requirement that states pay 25 percent.

McCoy said at his press briefing on Monday that he had spent the weekend lobbying for a federal stimulus package that would include funds for state and local governments.

If that is not forthcoming, McCoy said, “Tough decisions are going to be made … Government’s going to look different.”

Without a federal bailout, said McCoy, “The governor’s going to push a lot down to the counties.”

He anticipates seeing longer lines locally at food pantries.On Wednesday, the state’s Office of Temporary and disability Assistance announced more than $100 million in added emergency food assistance for New Yorkers affected by the pandemic.

About 700,000 New Yorkers enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, now called SNAP, will receive a supplemental payment to bring them up to the maximum allowable benefit for August to help them avoid food insecurity, the office said.

And, while McCoy said he was grateful both the governor and president had extended the moratorium on evictions for those affected by the coronavirus, he also said that meant tax money wouldn’t be coming in from the landlords.

McCoy said he didn’t want to scare people. “It’s my job to make you feel secure,” he said.

He said he hoped Republicans were just playing a political game and would “bail us out” before the November elections.

Today, Aug. 13, the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials is holding a press conference to call for federal support for New York State municipalities as they provide essential services and support economic recovery.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced $15.1 million in federal funds is available to state and county emergency-management agencies to support emergency planning and response. The deadline for applications is Aug. 1 and  Albany county is slated to get $116,987.

 

Travel and enforcement

In order to keep New York “an island in a sea of spread,” Cuomo has pushed for enforcement of protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus and also continues to announce updates to the list of states where it is not safe to travel.

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced that Hawaii, South Dakota, and the Virgin Islands meet the metrics to qualify for the travel advisory. At the same time, Alaska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Rhode Island were removed from the list.

Anyone arriving in New York State from one of the 31 listed states is to quarantine for 14 days, which is the outside incubation period for the virus. The quarantine applies to any person arriving from an area with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day rolling average or an area with a 10 percent or higher positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average.

In making the announcement, Cuomo said, “New York went from one of the worst situations in the country, to an example for the rest of the nation to follow … In order to protect this progress, we must keep up our efforts - we cannot go back to the hell we experienced a few months ago.”

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

Throughout the week, he listed the latest bars that had their liquor licenses suspended — all of them downstate — for what the governor called “egregious” violations of pandemic-related executive orders.

 

Newest numbers

McCoy announced on Wednesday morning that another Albany County resident died of COVID-19, on tuesday, bringing the county’s death toll to 129. The patient was a man in his 90s who lived in a private nursing home and had multiple underlying health conditions.

So far, the county has 2,383 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 369 residents currently under quarantine.

The 21 new cases include seven health-care workers or residents of private congregate settings, nine residents who had close contact to other positive cases, two who had reported traveling out of state, and three who do not have a clear source of transmission at this time.

The five-day average for new daily positive cases has increased to 8.8 from 6.8 on Tuesday. Albany County currently has 42 active cases, up from 27.

So far, 8,238 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,341 of them had tested positive and recovered, an increase of six.

Six county residents are hospitalized due to the virus, with one in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate has risen slightly to 0.25 percent.

More Regional News

  • The University of Albany is now more than half-way to the metric of COVID-19 cases that would force classes to be given entirely remotely.

  • “The focal issue for the legislature is we don’t want to become the dumping ground for New York State or for the Northeast,” says William Reinhardt, who chairs the county legislature’s Conservation, Sustainability and Green Initiatives Committee and who sponsored the Clean air Act.

  • The spike of COVID-19 cases at UAlbany can be traced back to athletes and to off-campus housing in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany, said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.

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