TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — The New York State Department of Health has released guidance for reopening school districts across the state.

The guidance, released July 13, stated that the state intends to provide guidance to local educational agencies as they plan to reopen their schools, whether instruction occurs in person, remotely or in some combination of the two. Local school districts need to submit their plans on how they reopen, what precautions they will take and if they will have a phased or partial reopening, by July 31. All districts and schools are required to create reopening plans at the school level. During the week of August 1, the state will make a decision on if those schools will reopen. Further guidance from the New York State Education Department is expected next week.

“We want to make that decision with the best available data,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference July 8. “The facts change here day to day, week to week. I understand there’s a drop-dead date where you have to make a decision by a certain date, but wait until that date to make a decision, because the facts may change.”

On July 8, President Donald Trump tweeted that he disagreed with the CDC’s guidelines to reopen schools, which are meant to supplement state and local guidelines. Cuomo said that schools will open if it is safe. 

“School reopenings are a state decision, period,” Cuomo said. “That is the law, and that is the way we’re going to proceed. It’s not up to the President of the United States.”

The guidance states that there will be no one-size-fits-all recommendation since New York is such a large and diverse state. Just in Tompkins County, there is a wide variation among the six districts. The Ithaca City School District has 5,092 students across 12 schools; Dryden Central School District has 1,408 students across five schools; Lansing Central School District has 1,159 students across three schools; Trumansburg Central School District has 1,001 students across three schools; Groton Central School District has 783 students across three schools; and Newfield Central School District has 746 students across three schools.

Cuomo said that schools will reopen if the region is in phase four and the daily infection rate remains below 5% using a 14-day average since UnPause was lifted. Schools will close if the regional infection rate is greater than 9%, using a 7-day average between Aug. 1 and the school’s opening date. 

The Southern Tier moved to phase four on June 26. The region has a 1% 7-day rolling average positive COVID-19 test result, as of July 12.

“If you have the virus under control, reopen,” Cuomo said July 13. “If you don’t have the virus under control, you can’t reopen. We’re not going to use our children as a litmus test and we’re not going to put our children in a place where their health is in danger.”

Health and Safety

The recommendations focus on preventative actions in schools, including daily health screenings for everyone entering the school and developing plans to maximize social distancing. Individuals with signs of symptoms are required to be isolated until they can be sent home. Schools must instruct students and staff about proper hand and respiratory hygiene, and all students and staff must wear face coverings or personal protective equipment, depending on job functions for staff, when social distancing cannot be maintained. Schools must also be cleaned and disinfected, in accordance with guidance from the CDC.

Schools must comply and participate in the state’s contact tracing program.

All enrolled students, whether they are learning in-person or remotely, should have access to school meals each school day.

The guidance also places emphasis on the social-emotional well-being of students. One suggestion for schools to follow is to consider a prolonged orientation or transition period before phasing in academic content.

“Social-emotional wellbeing must be schools’ and districts’ top priority in supporting school transitions, not at the expense of academics, but in order to create the mental, social, and emotional space for academic learning to occur,” the guidance states.

The school’s counseling program should be reviewed and revised to include multi-tiered systems of support, which involves counseling with the whole class, in smaller groups and at an individualized level. Staff should also take care to support each other during this transition. The department also recommends social and emotional learning to support anti-racism and anti-bias work.

Facilities and Transportation

Districts may expand their physical footprint or change the way they use their spaces to encourage social distancing, including leasing out spaces or temporary classroom units.

Fire and lockdown drills must still take place, and social distancing must be maintained.

Schools must continue to meet minimum ventilation requirements and may wish to increase ventilation and filtration.

School buses must be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Students must be trained to social distance at bus stops, and masks must be worn on buses.

Instruction and Attendance

Schools must submit a plan with a comprehensive schedule that includes in-person, remote and hybrid instruction, and the plans should be shared with stakeholders in the district with as much advance notice as possible.

Districts will continue to report attendance for state aid purposes, regardless of if instruction is in-person or virtual.

“School policies and procedures must focus on the academic consequences of lost instructional time and address absences before students fall behind in school,” the guidance states.

Schools are required to have standards-based instruction, substantive daily interaction and clear communications plans between parents and schools.

There will be some flexibility for student and staff ratio requirements in pre-kindergarten and extended time for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten screenings to be completed. Additionally, districts will be allowed to convert universal pre-kindergarten seats from full-day to half-day.

The guidance also suggests variance in the delivery of physical education and laboratories.

Technology and Communications

Districts must have knowledge of the level of technological access all students and teachers have in their places of residence and address inefficiencies, such as a lack of equipment, that individuals may have. Schools must also provide multiple ways for students to participate in learning.

Districts are recommended to provide IT support for students and families, as well as professional development for staff members using technology for remote learning.

The state recommends that districts consider prioritizing in-person instruction for students who receive special education, specifically high-need students and preschoolers with disabilities.

Professional learning opportunities for all teachers need to cover topics that support best practices and equitable instruction for English language learners and help address the learning gaps caused by COVID-19 school closures. Additionally, correspondences must be sent to parents and guardians in their preferred language.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated who issued the guidance. The NYSDOH issued these guidelines.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.