ALBANY — A week after state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker punted virus mitigation responsibilities to school districts, the state Education Department released a health and safety guide to help administrators plan for the upcoming academic year.
The safety guide released on Thursday, Aug. 13 is based on what the Education Department said is the “best health and safety information currently available” and will be updated as public health conditions change.
“As we prepare for schools to reopen in September, our priority must be to provide leaders with access to information about practices that have proven effective throughout the pandemic,” said Chancellor Lester W. Young. “The Department’s health and safety guide is a concise resource that will assist districts as they mitigate risks to the health and safety of students, teachers and school staff while providing flexibility for schools to address their own unique circumstances in a manner that best meets the needs of all students.”
The guide provides strategies, based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is designed to be used in conjunction with local, state and national resources available to schools.
The Education Department said it “strongly” encourages administrators to partner with health professionals when developing policy. Through the summer, public schools throughout the Capital District have collaborated to formulate a reopening plan amid rising infection rates and concerns over a new, Delta variant.
Last week, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy reported as many as 260 new COVID infections in one of his daily updates. Among the county’s 260 new COVID infections identified between August 2 and August 6, 107 were vaccinated.
“At a time when schools are preparing to reopen and the COVID positivity rate is increasing, we must ensure our schools and districts have the most up-to-date resources and mitigation strategies available to keep our children and school staff safe,” said Commissioner Betty A. Rosa. “Reopening amidst a pandemic for the second consecutive year is truly a daunting task. Our hope is that this guide, coupled with the input of local health officials will help the state’s education community as they prepare for September.”
The Education Department’s health and safety guide addresses questions related to: COVID-19 vaccinations, monitoring community transmission, wearing of masks, physical distancing, sports and extracurricular activities, COVID-19 screening, health questionnaire screenings, contact tracing, COVID-19 related facilities projects, remote instruction, and funding sources available to schools and districts that may help with preparing for the upcoming school year and beyond.
“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools,” Zucker shared in a statement on Aug. 8. “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 [Center for Disease Control] and local health departments.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders issued in response to the emerging pandemic were rescinded effective June 25, after the governor announced more than 20 million vaccinations were administered throughout the state. With more than 71 percent of New Yorker adults having received at least their first dose, the emergency powers were lifted.
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta followed the Education Department’s announcement by urging schools to work with educators and parents as they develop their mitigation plans. Nonetheless, he expressed his support.
“We applaud the state Education Department for stepping in and issuing statewide guidance on reopening schools. As educators, we know that the best place for students to learn is in the classroom,” Pallotta said. “We must do everything we can to ensure every student has access to full-time, in-person instruction this year. That includes ensuring our schools are safe and healthy for students and the people who serve them.”
Zucker has fallen under increased scrutiny amid the fallout related to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment accusations and his subsequent resignation.
In June, the state health commissioner caused state schools to scurry as he challenged the CDC to clarify its suggestions concerning masks in school. In a Friday email to Washington, he shared how he was ready to lift mask mandates at schools with less than two weeks remaining in the academic year following the agency’s announced guidelines pertaining to summer camps. By Sunday, school districts confirmed mask requirements before students returned to classes.