What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo cleared all New York school districts to reopen in the fall, making the decision based on the seven-day rolling infection rate in the state's 10 regions. All regions are well below his 5 % positivity threshold
- Schools will have to shut down again if their region ticks above 9 percent; NYC has a stricter mark of 3 percent. It won't open schools if the positivity rate is higher than that and it'll re-close them if it does after they reopen
- Ultimately, Cuomo says a low infection rate won't get parents to send their kids to school or teachers to show; he calls on individual school districts to inform them of detailed plans and post testing and other protocol online
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the green light Friday to reopen New York's 750 school districts in person this fall -- a data-driven decision that mirrors the threshold-based calls he made on the phased economic reopenings for the state's 10 regions. But this decision is different. Cuomo says it's ultimately not up to him.
"Parents have to be included and believe the plan makes sense. Teachers have to be included and believe the plan makes sense. They are the ultimate determination," Cuomo said this week. "If a teacher doesn't show up, you can't open the class. If a parent doesn't send their child there's no child to educate."
The state still has to sign off on each of New York's 749 school districts' individual plans; if it doesn't, those districts don't reopen in September. Of those 749 districts, 127 have yet to submit plans for the 2020-21 school year, Cuomo said. Of the ones that have, about 50 have been deemed insufficient. The state Department of Health will review the individual school plans over the weekend and notify districts where it finds them incomplete, he said.
The governor's decision on reopening school districts relies solely on the seven-day rolling average positive test rate for the region where each is located. The threshold for the initial clearance he gave Friday was 5 percent. If positivity rates tick above 9 percent in a given region going forward, the district -- and all the schools within it -- will have to close. New York's statewide seven-day average has consistently been at 1 percent for a month. So too has New York City's.
"Everywhere in the state, every region is below the threshold that we established," Cuomo told reporters. "If any state can do this, we can do this."
That said, Cuomo says there's more to the schools equation than the viral transmission rate. All he does is set the floor. Parents and teachers make the call --- and many have serious concerns about whether school plans work for them.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Simply telling parents their district is in a low infection rate region won't necessarily make them feel comfortable sending their kids to school, Cuomo has said. He says parents need to be included in the specific conversations now. In some spots, parents may prefer remote learning. Many prefer in-person school -- and a fuller week than blended learning would permit. But even those parents may hesitate on safety issues -- and they wonder what it could mean for their jobs and their kids' educations if schools have to shut down again, Cuomo says.
His office fields hundreds of calls on the schools issue, the governor says, so he's familiar with parents' concerns. What happens if my child tests positive? What happens if another child or a teacher test positive? How will we know? What about asymptomatic spread? Does testing require parental permission? Where are the testing facilities and how will the test and trace process work?
Certain protocols are required statewide. Every person in school must wear a mask when social distancing isn't possible, for example. Daily temperature checks are another component. See the state Department of Education's complete guidelines for safely reopening schools here. While the governor has outlined core standards, much of the planning is up to the individual districts.
Cuomo says he'll ask every school district to post their testing and contact tracing plans online. He also wants full remote learning plans posted, citing concern he's heard from parents and educators about demographic inequities in that regard. (New York City gave iPads to kids in need in March and will do the same in fall.)
The governor also wants each of the five major school districts, including New York City, home to the largest public school district in the nation with more than 1.1 million students, to hold at least five online parent information sessions by Aug. 21. He wants at least one set up to focus on teachers as well -- because without the buy-in of these stakeholders, he says reopening is irrelevant.
"They're watching what's happening across the country," Cuomo said of parents. "They're watching what these other school districts are doing. They're watching outbreaks when school is open. They have serious concerns. And they should."
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Despite President Donald Trump's repeated assertions that young people are "practically immune" from COVID, national experts say that's simply not the case. While all agree children generally fare better than adults when infected, their role in spreading the virus to others is far less clear.
It's a dilemma that has plagued parents, educators and political officials for months. They all agree in-person learning is far more beneficial for students than remote learning. They also agree students could contract the virus at school, not know it, and spread it to in some cases multi-generational families at home.
A growing number of major school districts across the country, including Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston, have opted to start the school year fully remotely amid the national COVID-19 surge. For months, Mayor Bill de Blasio, helping lead the former epicenter of the national crisis to one of the lowest viral transmission rates, hasn't wavered on his commitment to returning as many students to in-person learning in September as is safely possible. Three-quarters of hundreds of thousands of parents surveyed by the DOE say they want that.
New York City has submitted a detailed framework for its overall in-person plan -- one that calls for having students in school buildings no more than three times a week. But parents are still waiting for specifics on what this COVID-adjusted environment will look like in the individual schools their children attend.
Mayor de Blasio has pledged to ensure parents have their students' schedules and know of each school's specific plan in the next few weeks. He has also outlined specific criteria that could trigger immediate school closures.
"It will not be easy but I think most parents feel strongly that even some time in school is a lot better for their kids than none," de Blasio said.
If two students in different classrooms test positive for COVID, for example, the entire school must be shut down for 14 days. New York City says it won't open schools if its rolling seven-day positivity rate hits 3 percent, a stricter threshold than Cuomo's. See the city's full plan here for more on its COVID precautions.
Certain boroughs have higher spot positivity rates than others -- and certain ZIP codes within each borough still are viral hotspots to some degree. Cuomo acknowledged those nuances on his conference calling Friday, saying New York City may have to develop more targeted strategies to address those issues.
De Blasio hasn't indicated the 3 percent threshold applies to anything but a citywide assessment. Positivity rates are higher in the Bronx right now than they are in Manhattan, for example, driven by a few high-infection rate neighborhoods.
Asked about schools ahead of Cuomo's expected announcement Friday, Mayor de Blasio said he'd refrain from comment until it becomes public. But he emphasized the message he has stressed for months: The city will be vigilant. And it will work with the state to evaluate safety on an ongoing basis. The mayor's tweet following the governor's announcement echoed his earlier messaging.
"We're committed to getting this right. We will reopen safely," de Blasio said. "The health of our kids, teachers and staff comes first."
New York state and city teachers' unions want stricter rules from the state -- like one new confirmed COVID case triggering an immediate school closure.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, demanded that New York City has aggressive testing and contract tracing policy in place if schools are to re-open in even a limited way in September. The city's plan says one positive case will trigger a test-and-trace investigation, but Mulgrew has questioned whether the plan is sufficient.
He re-upped the point Friday after Cuomo's announcement, saying in a statement, "As Gov. Cuomo noted, parents and teachers must be confident that schools are safe before they can reopen. In New York City that is still an open question."
Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said the New York City school principals represented by his union still have many unanswered questions about how schools can reopen safely.
"We believe that NYC school leaders do not yet have enough information and guidance from the (Department of Education) to reopen their buildings properly," he said.
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."
In New Jersey, hundreds of teachers have said they won't return to work over coronavirus concerns. Gov. Phil Murphy has laid out his framework for reopening schools in his state; he has also put forth a fully remote option for parents.
Parents in New York City also have the option to choose full remote learning; they'll be able to opt back in to in-person instruction at certain times over the year. The deadline for full remote opt-in is Friday. De Blasio said he expected the city would provide an update on the number of those enrollees early next week.