As long as their specific plans are approved by the New York State Department of Health, Tompkins County schools will be allowed to reopen for in-person classes in the coming weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday morning, even as the coronavirus pandemic slows but continues in New York.
"All school districts can open, everywhere in the state," Cuomo said. "Which is just great news."
The determination for eligibility was based on infection rates and economic reopening status, both criteria which the Southern Tier has met for weeks. If the infection rate of a region climbs above nine percent over a seven day period, schools in that region will immediately be closed for in-person learning.
Ithaca City School District and other local districts had turned in their reopening plans on July 31, the state mandated deadline, and began releasing them to the public over the last week. Some are opting for a hybrid approach, bringing certain students to in-person classes only a few days a week, while others, like ICSD, have asked parents to choose whether to send their students to in-person classes or enroll them in virtual learning full-time, both of which would take place five days per week (A full write-up of ICSD's plan is available here). More information will be available, likely next week, regarding whether or not the plans have been approved by the Department of Health.
"Every school district has submitted plans to the Department of Health and Education Department," Cuomo said. "The Department of Health has the plans, and the Department of Health can disapprove plans if they're not responsible from a health point of view."
Cuomo said that if the Department of Health doesn't approve a district's plan, the school will not be permitted to open, but could obviously tweak its plans to meet the health department's concerns. Of the 749 school districts in the state, 127 have not submitted plans (that likely includes New York City school districts, which have been granted an extension). Fifty of those 127 are "incomplete" or "deficient," according to Cuomo. Those districts will be informed of that by Monday.
Cuomo acknowledged that local school districts may still struggle to deal with parents and teachers and the concerns that they will bring to the table.
"If the parents don't send their students, then you're not really opening schools," Cuomo said. Cuomo said he wants two things from districts to address that: fixing inequity in remote learning (such as problems with internet access) and explaining how districts plan to solve those issues, and that he wants schools to post their testing plans for teachers, staff and students. He also wants contact tracing plans revealed and posted by all school districts, and districts to hold three discussion sessions with parents and one discussion session exclusively for teachers, all before Aug. 21.
The testing plan requirement would seem to be counter to what had been signaled to school districts previously, as ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown had said a testing component was not included in ICSD's reopening plan because they felt that the published guidelines had discouraged local districts from establishing testing programs.
"We have been following the NYSED and NYSDOH guidance very closely on the issues of testing and all other logistics related to reopening," Brown said earlier this week, explaining why the school district didn't include a testing regimen in its reopening plan. "Currently, the guidance has strongly urged that school districts not conduct testing. Furthermore, to conduct testing, school districts are required to apply and be granted status as a laboratory site."
Cuomo seemed to contradict that on Friday, saying instead that the Department of Health had always included testing as part of its reopening guidelines, which is true, but the department only told schools that they would need to include a plan for "the provision or referral of diagnostic testing." ICSD, and other schools, have identified the Tompkins County Health Department as the purveyor of those tests, so perhaps in the end their plans won't need a significant late change.
Additionally, Cuomo was asked about the willingness of teachers to return to classrooms, and he said that was part of why he wanted to require districts to have discussion sessions only for teachers. Earlier this week, the Ithaca Times reported that 50 percent of the 413 ICSD teachers who responded to an internal survey had told their union that they would not be returning to the classroom and would instead opt to teach online; 32 percent said they had not yet decided, and the remaining 18 percent said they were willing to teach in the classroom. Cuomo discouraged against forcing teachers back to physically teach in school buildings under the current conditions, even with infection rates falling statewide.
"They're not going to be able to teach in that environment," Cuomo said. "There is going to need to be significant discussion because teachers are raising many issues."