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Cuomo gives green light for all New York schools to reopen – but with plenty of conditions

FILE PHOTO: The entrance to Public School 159 is seen in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, U.S., July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his blessing Friday to the reopening of schools across the Empire State — provided the state approves reopening plans developed by each school district, including New York City.

During a Friday conference call with reporters, Cuomo said that the state finds itself in “the best situation in the country right now” in terms of COVID-19 infection rates. Just 1% of the 70,170 people tested for COVID-19 on Aug. 6 came back positive for the virus.

With low infections holding in every region of New York state, the governor said schools should reopen under plans with plenty of precautions to keep students, teachers and staff safe — from mandatory wearing of masks to social distancing and testing protocols.

“They are all authorized to open,” Cuomo said. “Again, we’re going to watch the infection rate between now and the day schools open. If there’s a spike in the infection rate, if there’s a matter of concern with the infection rate, then we can revisit it. But for planning purposes, they can reopen.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio cautioned on Twitter that the city, while on track to reopening its schools, would engage in a very cautious strategy.

“We’re committed to getting this right. We will reopen safely,” he wrote. “If COVID-19 positvity [sic] rate goes above 3%, we will not open. The health of our kids, teachers and staff comes first.”

Yet Cuomo acknowledged the high concern among parents and teachers statewide who are nonetheless anxious about hundreds of students and teachers coming together again in a classroom setting. 

“I have been deluged with calls from parents and teachers, and there is a significant level of anxiety and concern,” the governor said. “And I’ve said a number of times, these school districts have to be talking to the parents and the teachers.”

To put minds at ease, Cuomo directed all state school districts, including the city’s Department of Education, to post online by the end of next week detailed plans focused on remote learning, school community COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. 

School districts should also hold a series of meetings through Aug. 21 inviting parents to learn more about the reopening plans in their districts and ask questions. The districts should also meet with teachers separately for the same purpose.

The state Departments of Health and Education must approve each individual district school reopening plan before the schools can reopen. Up to 50 plans already submitted for approval were not deemed satisfactory, Cuomo said, and state officials would contact district officials this weekend and Monday on correcting the plans.

New York City’s plan, as previously announced by de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, focuses on a “blended model” of education for the coming school year — with students spending only three days a week in the classroom, with supplemental lessons provided online through remote learning.

“We’re committed to getting this right. We will reopen safely,” said de Blasio. “If COVID-19 positivity rate goes above 3%, we will not open. The health of our kids, teachers and staff comes first.”

But the United Federation of Teachers has already expressed great concern over the reopening plan, with members charging that it doesn’t meet safety standards.

Cuomo wasn’t specific in saying what would happen if teachers refused to return to the classrooms in September, but told reporters that the reopening can only work if the teachers feel comfortable and safe to return.

“You’re not going to order a teacher into the classroom and say, ‘Do your job, even though you don’t want to be here.’ And that’s not the relationship we have with our teachers,” the governor said. “The teachers have to agree to go back, and I am telling you, there is going to need to be significant discussion because teachers are facing many issues. … They have to be comfortable. You don’t want to get into a legal battle about it.” 

In a joint statement, state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe expressed particular concern about the “digital divide” suffered by low-income students during remote learning early on in the pandemic. They called upon Cuomo and the state legislature “to find real solutions and funding to provide equity for all our students,” regardless of economic levels.

“We must find a common way forward if we hope to move on safely and appropriately from this catastrophe. That must also include a statewide plan to assist all our districts and schools with purchasing Personal Protective Equipment and technology,” they added. “The safety of our children and educators must be of utmost priority if we are to continue the monumental improvement that New York State has made in flattening the curve and ensure that we protect that progress.”

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