What to Know
- With the delta variant rapid spreading and kids under 12 still unable to get vaccinated, school administrators are scrambling to figure out by themselves what the new school year will look like
- They will have to make decisions without guidelines from the state Health Department which said Thursday that it is leaving all COVID-19 guidelines and school reopening decisions in the hands of individual districts
- Meanwhile, New York and states across the country grapple with masking in schools. It's yet another layer of uncertainty that will further complicate what will surely be another stressful year
Educators across the state of New York have been preparing to safely welcome students back to in-person learning for the fall semester, and they've just learned that they will not be getting any guidance from the state health department on how to do that.
Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Thursday that the public health authority is leaving all COVID-19 guidelines and school reopening decisions in the hands of individual districts, citing the end of the state disaster emergency as the day that school districts regained control of such decisions.
"Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments," Zucker said in a statement.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo first declared COVID-19 a disaster emergency in New York on March 7, 2020. After the state made huge progress with vaccinations, declining hospitalizations and coronavirus positivity rate over this spring and summer, the governor allowed the executive order to expire June 25.
But with the delta variant rapid spreading and kids under 12 still unable to get vaccinated, school administrators are scrambling to figure out by themselves what the new school year will look like.
"To hear this first week of August is a real challenge for us," White Plains Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca tells NBC New York.
"We agreed that we would be requiring masks for all individuals within our school facilities," Ricca added, saying that his district had already started working on their own reopening plans when they didn't hear from Albany all summer -- and he's not alone in feeling abandoned by the health department.
New York State Education Department Commissioner Betty Rosa said she has sent a letter asking Zucker to reconsider his department's responsibilities in protecting public health.
"Currently, there is no greater nuisance affecting public health and safety than COVID-19. There is an urgent need for timely advice and supervision flowing from the State Department of Health to local and school officials as they navigate these uncertain times," the education department said in a statement.
"The circumstances enveloping the Executive Chamber this week should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the Governor’s office for months," the statement continued, likely referring to the state attorney general's report that found Gov. Cuomo has sexually harassed multiple women.
Parents NBC New York spoke to following Zucker's announcement have mixed feelings about what the health department's lack of involvement will mean for their children. Many also said they agree that Cuomo is too distracted right now to handle important decisions about schools.
Sean Degidon said it could be a good thing that school districts have more control over the decisions that will directly impact his kids.
"I think it at least potentially is an improvement because there's more accountability to teachers and parents and students," Degidon said.
Meanwhile, New York and states across the country grapple with masking in schools. It's yet another layer of uncertainty that will further complicate what will surely be another stressful year.
In Florida, two school districts have decided to require masks when children return to classrooms because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections, with the state leading the country in hospitalizations. That's despite a statewide ban on masks by the governor.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to announce Friday that staff members and students from kindergarten to 12th grade will be required to wear masks when the new year begins in a few weeks.
Both New Jersey and New York governors have previously said they will not be reinstating the indoor mask mandate amid rising COVID-19 cases, though they "strongly recommend" everyone to follow the CDC's guidelines and wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.