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‘We Can Do This’

Cuomo: Schools Can Reopen In New York State

Buses in the Jamestown City School District garage are ready for use in the wake of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on Friday afternoon the state’s 700 school districts can reopen in September if done safely. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

New York schools can bring children back to classrooms for the start of the school year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday, citing success in battling the coronavirus in the state that once was the U.S. heart of the pandemic.

The Democratic governor’s decision clears the way for schools in Chautauqua County to move forward with their individual reopening plans, most of which look to offer at least some days of in-person classes, alongside remote learning. Students will be required to wear masks throughout school day.

“Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established,” Cuomo told reporters. He said New York can “revisit” if the infection rate spikes.

Many New York school districts have planned to start the year with students in school buildings only a few days a week, while learning at home the rest of the time.

The state has left tough decisions — on how to handle sick students, how much time children will spend in class, whether to delay in-person instruction — up to individual districts.

“If any state can do this, we can do this,” Cuomo said.

The announcement was welcomed by superintendents across Chautauqua County, most of whom have exhausted resources in a very short period of time to formulate a plan that was in jeopardy of coming to fruition.

“Our stakeholder groups collaborated to establish a comprehensive plan of four days in-person learning for all students and we are thrilled to get to use it,” Pine Valley Central School Superintendent Bryna Booth said.

“These groups put the health and safety of students, families, and Pine Valley employees first. I’m hopeful infection rates will drop more and we will quickly be able to provide a full week of safe in person learning that protects everyone on our campus. We know we can provide a better education to students in person than remote and we will do everything necessary to take care of our kids, our families and our team.”

Sherman Central School District Superintendent Michael Ginestre called Friday’s announcement a “good day” for the students and families of his district.

“We are extremely excited to start in-person instruction again,” he said. “We know schools will look different with safety measures in place and not all students will be in school five days per way. But, this is a great start. Sherman is working around the clock to ensure equity whether students are in-person or not. That work will continue through the summer and we look forward to engaging with our parents for the fall. We can’t wait to see our students in-person again.”

School districts, though, face enormous hurdles.

Cuomo warned New York’s roughly 700 districts still need to address the safety fears of parents and teachers. He said districts must post remote learning plans online and hold public discussion sessions.

The plans submitted last Friday also are still subject to the approval of the state’s department of health, which will continue to go through plans over the weekend. About 50 plans are still incomplete or deficient, he said.

“We need to work together with the area schools and department of health to open safely,” Southwestern Central School District Superintendent Maureen Donahue said. “It will be great to have our Trojan family back in school.”

“JPS will continue with our planning process, taking into account the changes that we are faced with,” Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Whitaker said. “We care deeply about our JPS community and want to ensure that our process continues to involve the input of our parents and community members. We want to be sure that our school plans address safety concerns in the best way possible, and with input from our students, parents and staff. JPS’ on-line survey regarding our reopening plan remains open for feedback.”

“Please know that the health and safety of our students and staff is our number one priority and we continue to focus our efforts on our number one goal of student and staff safety,” he added.

Teachers unions have demanded clearer health protocols and a rule that schools should shut down immediately for two weeks if any student or staff member contracts the virus.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta also released the following statement today regarding the governor’s decision on reopening schools

“We have been clear all along: Health and safety is the most important consideration in reopening school buildings,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said, saying viral infection rates “tell only one part of the story.”

“Many educators and parents have anxiety about local school district reopening plans that have been submitted to the state – if they even have been yet, with 127 districts that didn’t bother to submit them by last week and 50 considered incomplete by the state,” he said. “No district should consider themselves ready to reopen buildings until their plans are safe and everything in that plan meant to keep the school community safe is implemented. Being safe means parents and teachers must be confident in the reopening plan, and it is welcome news that districts must meet with parents and teachers this month.

Teachers are prohibited from striking in New York state, but large numbers could still opt out of classroom instruction for medical reasons or simply refuse to work.

The governor said he doesn’t want New York to get into a legal battle with teachers, adding: “You can’t order a teacher into a classroom.”

“We’re thankful the governor agrees that forcing people back into the classroom when they feel their health is threatened is not what should happen,” Pallotta said. “So if districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period.”

Schools have spent the summer coming up with safety plans, securing protective gear and figuring out how to fit fewer students into classrooms and buses. Cuomo required all school systems to submit reopening plans, saying New York would not allow any district with an unsafe plan to bring students back to classrooms.

Earlier this summer, Cuomo set a general metric to help measure when it was safe to bring students back, saying the state would allow a return in regions where fewer than 5% of people tested for COVID-19 came back positive.

The entire state has been well under that threshold all summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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