Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that all schools across New York can reopen for in-person classes in the fall, citing the state’s success in battling the coronavirus pandemic.
However, it does not mean that every school building across all 750 districts in the Empire State will have students and teachers returning to campus.
Under Cuomo’s order, schools can choose to reopen as long as they are in a region where the average rate of positive coronavirus tests is below five percent.
The entire state has been well under that threshold all summer, but Cuomo also recently stressed that, even if he allowed schools to reopen, it wouldn’t work if parents and teachers aren’t sure they are safe.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that schools can only reopen if the positivity rate is below three percent.
It’s a major turnaround for New York, which went from being the US epicenter of the pandemic to having one of the lowest transmission rates in the country.
During a conference call with reporters, Cuomo said teachers and students will be required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.
If a family or a child does not have a mask, the school district must provide one.
All school districts will be required to post their remote learning plans and their testing/tracing plans online.
Dates must also be set for three-to-five discussions with parents prior to August 21 and at least one separate discussion with teachers alone.
The announcement by Cuomo clears the way for schools to offer at least some days of in-person classes, alongside remote learning.
‘Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established,’ Cuomo said during the conference call with reporters.
‘If there’s a spike in the infection rate, if there’s a matter of concern in the infection rate, then we can revisit.’
Many New York school districts have planned to start the year with students in school buildings only a few days a week, while learning at home the rest of the time.
The largest school district in the US, New York City, had its last day of in-class instruction on March 13, just as waves of sick people were beginning to hit city hospitals.
Mayor de Blasio has been saying since the spring that his goal for fall was to bring students back on schedule, with as much classroom time as possible while still allowing for social distancing.
That plan has looked exceedingly ambitious as other large school systems have backed away from in-person instruction in recent weeks.
Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston, among other places, have all announced they will start the school year with students learning remotely.
De Blasio, while cautioning that he could change course at any time, had expressed hope that the relatively low rate of transmission of the virus in the city would allow students and staff to return safely.
He had also said a return to classroom instruction is vital to jump-starting the city’s economy, now hobbled by parents being forced to stay home with their children.
School reopening plans, though, face enormous hurdles.
The outbreak, while reduced, is not over in New York. Around 10,000 New York City residents tested positive for the virus in July.
On Wednesday, two unions, New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers, demanded clearer health protocols dictating that schools should shut down immediately for two weeks if any student or member of the staff contracts the virus.
Teachers are prohibited from striking in New York, but it has been unclear whether large numbers would either opt out of classroom instruction for medical reasons or simply refuse to work.
Parents, too, have struggled to decide whether to send their children to school or opt solely for online instruction at home.
Schools have spent the summer coming up with safety plans, securing protective gear and figuring out how to fit fewer students into classrooms and school buses.
Cuomo required all school systems to submit plans detailing their reopening plans, saying that the state would not allow any district with an unsafe plan to bring students back to classrooms.
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker warned this week that ‘an ill-prepared reopening could put students, staff and parents in peril.’