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Gillibrand, State Leaders Discuss Reopening Decision

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand visited Falconer Friday morning to discuss food insecurity ahead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to allow schools to reopen should they meet certain health requirements. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

FALCONER — Moments before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement via conference call that the state’s 700 school districts would be able to reopen, federal and state representatives gathered at the FeedMore WNY Distribution Center added their thoughts on the state’s reopening.

Local leaders gathered at the Falconer-Frewsburg Road facility Friday morning for a visit from U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, who was in town to push for an extension of Pandemic EBT and expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Gillibrand, the state’s junior representative in the Senate, is hopeful that schools can reopen safely.

“As a mother, I can see the detrimental effect kids not being in school has,” she said. “Teachers are working overtime to provide distance learning, but it’s very difficult.”

That difficulty stems from the Oval Office, she said.

“It’s very hard though to reopen schools safely when President (Donald) Trump doesn’t take his responsibilities seriously to provide universal testing, to use the Defense Production Act to make sure we have the testing materials like the swabs or the re-agents that are running short,” she said.

From left, state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel and state Sen. George Borrello talk with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand during her visit to Falconer on Friday. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

“In New York state right now, some places where you’re getting tested take a week to get the results back. That does not allow us to reopen school safely if we can’t test all our kids, make sure everyone is COVID free, take temperatures and test intermittently to make sure that COVID isn’t being reintroduced into the classroom.”

Complications also arise financially: school districts are fearing a 20% cut in their budget from Cuomo, who defers to a lack of federal funding as the guiding force in that reduction.

“I’m very concerned because we want to reopen schools safely, but President Trump isn’t giving the means to do that, unfortunately, and right now Congress is at a standstill about sending money to the states for schools,” she said. “We’re in a tough spot. Each state will make their own decisions, hopefully we will be able to open some of our schools because we have the resources and we have the ability to keep the classroom safe. My job is to try and get the resources into the state so that they can do that.”

Asked if she had spoken with the governor about school reopening and his then-impending decision ahead of Friday’s conference call, Gillibrand said she had not but had been closely following the developments out of Albany.

“Families are worried, they don’t want their kids to go back if it’s not safe, teachers are worried, they don’t want to go back if they’re not safe,” she added. “It’s incumbent on me as the federal representative to get resources and it’s incumbent on the governor and our local representatives to do everything they can to make schools safe.”

Other leaders in attendance believed, however, that Friday’s decision should not have been the governor’s to make — and are acting on that belief.

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, told The Post-Journal that he and state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, will introduce legislation to affirm that education policy under the New York State Constitution as the responsibility of the state’s board of regents.

“Since 1782, the state’s Board of Regents has had exclusive constitutional authority over schools — not the governor,” Goodell said. “The joint resolution would reaffirm that the board of regents — not the governor — should make decisions on when and how we reopen and what the guidelines are to be.”

He added, “That makes a lot of sense for all the teachers and educational professionals because the board of regents is run by educational professions whose sole mission is to use their educational expertise to balance all these critical issues on safety, nutrition, educational policy, access to internet, socialization, mental health issues.”

Borrello said that neither body of the state’s legislative branch was privy to any decision regarding schools and reopening.

“It’s another reason why I’ve been opposed to giving him this sweeping authority and why we have taken steps to try and curb that authority because he has not been cooperative with the legislature,” he said, referencing the legislation he will introduce with Goodell. “He has not brought us into the conversation. That being said, we’ll probably find out at the same time everyone else does the decision that he makes.”

Borrello believes that there are still flaws with the reopening concept.

“Most schools are talking about alternating days and how do people deal with childcare issues when they’re dealing with alternating days?” he said. “How do we ensure that people are eating on those off-days? Right now the governor has been withholding childcare funding that came from the federal government through the CARES Act. Some of it has been distributed. It’s not all of it and it’s been months he’s been withholding nearly a billion dollars for PreK which is forcing schools to make difficult decisions on PreK.”

Goodell also emphasized that leaving topics regarding education to the legislature-appointed state board of regents, and board-appointed education commissioner would eliminate politically motivated decisions by Cuomo.

“The commissioner of education has experts around them that have the best educational interests in reopening,” he said. “They’re the ones that should make that decision. It should not be the political decision by the governor. … Hopefully, the legislature will take that up in the next few weeks and reassert the responsibility of the experts in the Board of Regents, thus rendering the governor’s personal opinion irrelevant.”

He added, “The leadership has been poor and that’s because the governor believes he’s an expert on all things and he really isn’t. He needs to do what most good leaders do and rely on folks that have the expertise and the ability.”

Borrello did give Cuomo credit in managing the state’s approach to the virus, but emphasized that the path forward cannot be through what he refers to as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“I do want to stress that the governor has done a good job in trying to manage the public health crisis,” he said. “Where he has stumbled dramatically has been in handling the economic crisis. This is because he has tried to apply the same emergency authority that he used to shut down our economy into reopening it and that’s the failure.”

He added, “The failure is that this is a complex state that has different needs and different circumstances when it comes to the pandemic. He understood that initially when he adopted the program that Andy Goodell and I had originally recommended, but now he is going back to this one-size-fits-all strategy and that has created a tremendous amount of economic pain throughout our state. Once again, he needs to go back to a thoughtful, regional analysis to get our economy running again.”

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