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COVID-19 outbreak at upstate SUNY campus ‘canary in the coal mine’ for schools reopening: Cuomo

Photo via Flickr/Governor Cuomo's office

After social gatherings led to 71 students at SUNY Oneonta testing positive for COVID-19, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that it was a warning to K-12 schools eyeing reopening in the coming days, particularly in the western part of the state.

On Sunday, incoming SUNY Chancellor James Malatras said several students at the university had been suspended for throwing parties against school guidelines and containment measures were still underway. Cuomo called the situation the “canary in coal mine” for whether – or how – in-person learning can take place once again.

“I think what we’re seeing in colleges, we’re going to see in the K-12 setting when those schools start to reopen,” Cuomo said. “They have to have the right plan in place, look at the colleges for what’s going on… A plan on paper is one thing, being able to do it is a second question that has to be asked, and my advice to the K-12 is the same: Err on the side of caution.”

The Sunday announcement comes a day after the United Federation of Teachers in New York City prepared to vote on a strike if there is not a better plan to protect the health of educators ahead of the Sept. 10 start of the new year. They are asking the city for better ventilation, uniform mask requirements in schools, and greater testing capacity.

Asked about the turmoil, Cuomo said that the power should be in the teachers’ hands to decide whether or not measures from their respective school districts (including the city’s Department of Education, which counts as one district for all New York City) are adequate.

“The local school districts don’t need me to say in New York City when the children should wear a mask or in Buffalo or Long Island. A local school district can decide on a mask policy specific to that application and we’ve left some flexibility [in the statewide mask mandate] for local application,” Cuomo said. “The teachers need to feel safe otherwise they won’t be going back to school. I’ve said that from day one. We have all these bureaucratic discussions… No, this is about parents and teachers, those are the only decision-makers here.”

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said masks are recommended at all times, including instruction and activity, as well as socially distanced classrooms and other school settings. 

With flu season about to cast a shadow on New York’s door, all respiratory deaths need to be confirmed for COVID-19 or the flu to strengthen data, according to Zucker. Cuomo said that strengthened data will also further clarify the COVID-19 death rate.

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