Q. Are all school districts/BOCES required to abide by the Governor’s Executive Orders?
A. Yes. Executive Orders are temporary modifications to existing laws that the Governor put in place to
respond to the “Disaster Emergency” caused by the pandemic. They have the full force of the law and school board members and school district superintendents must comply.
Q. Do school districts/BOCES have to comply with the guidance materials supplied by the Federal, NYS and Monroe County Departments of Health?
A. Yes. The Governor’s Executive Orders explicitly define the CDC, the DOH and County Health Departments as the agencies to supply the guidelines for schools. In order to re-open schools for any in-person instruction
s from PreK-12, plans had to be submitted and approved through both the NYS DOH and the NYSED. Those guidelines had both mandatory and recommended best practices contained within them and school districts were required to submit their plans in alignment with that guidance. It is still the guidance that is listed on the website with the explicit note that “district superintendents are accountable for staying current with any updates to local, state and federal requirements and incorporating those changes into their operations.” Guidance and guidelines are NOT recommendations but requirements.
Q. What are the consequences of the District not complying?
A. If the District were to not comply with the CDC, the DOH, and/or the Governor’s Executive Orders, per Executive Order 202.69 issued on 10/14/2020 and still in effect, the District risks losing our state aid which currently accounts for about 47% of our total budget, approximately $43 million dollars.
Q. Now that the color zones testing requirements are lifted do schools have flexibility to change their reopening plans?
A. In January, the Governor removed the color zone testing requirements for schools. No other flexibility was granted to schools regarding any other regulations. All other requirements remained in place.
Q. Don’t studies show that schools are the safest place for kids?
A. Yes. Our school districts have worked incredibly hard in order to make schools one of the safest environments for their students and employees. But, it is because they have followed the guidance and the regulations explicitly, that schools are safe. On top of that, they have become masters at mitigation; of keeping track of infection rates, contact tracing and employing every strategy available to them to make sure that schools continue to be safe even during the peaks of COVID. IF schools had not followed all of these protocols, schools could be in a very different place.
There are also studies that show, that while schools have maintained lower rates of infection than in their general communities, once the rate of hospitalizations increases, it is harder to discern whether or not a school is contributing to the community spread.
Q. Why can’t we simply put up temporary structures to teach our students in so that we meet the social distancing requirements?
A. Regardless of what structure a student in New York State is being taught in, the structure must meet all building code regulations. In addition, buildings require prior approval from NYSED before construction can even begin which is a process which can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. Furthermore, additional classrooms would require additional teachers to be hired which would significantly increase our expenses while we are receiving less aid from the local and federal government. School districts have been hit heavily with unplanned costs during the pandemic including PPE equipment, hardware for students and increased contract costs for programs being utilized for remote learning such as Zoom. We also have to keep in mind that currently with the infection rate of educators and the number of educators on leave due to medical vulnerability, districts are having difficulty finding substitute teachers for the current course offerings.
Q. Who in reality, has the authority to re-open schools?
A. Although on January 4, 2021 Governor Cuomo announced that it is up to school leaders to decide whether or not to reopen schools, he did not remove the requirements to meet CDC mandates. Therefore, the Commissioner of Health determines which school districts able to re-open and mandates all school-related safety requirements.
Q. What are the current requirements from the CDC that school districts must follow in order to open fully and remain open?
A. The CDC requires a consistent use of mitigation strategies including:
- universal and correct use of masks
- physical distancing of at least 6 feet recommended if community transmission (defined as total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days) is 49 or lower; required if community transmission is 50 or greater; Note: Monroe County has a population of approximately 741,770 people so a 7-day average transmission rate in Monroe County is equivalent to 371 cases. From November 26, 2020 through January 21, 2021 our county has been at or above a 50 transmission rate. There appears to be a correlation between breaks and transmission rate increases and every time the rate spikes above 50, we would have to meet the 6 foot requirement and go to a remote or hybrid plan. Teaching remote and in-person at the same time requires prior planning of lessons.
- families of students who are at increased risk of severe illness or live with individuals at high risk should be given the option of virtual instruction
- daily reporting of COVID-19 testing and diagnoses among students, teaching staff, employees and volunteers
- physical education classes and fine arts classes require physical distancing of at least 12 feet
- one student per seat on a school bus
Q. What is needed for school districts to fully reopen schools?
A. The CDC Commissioner of Health must allow the following:
- A decrease in the social distancing requirement is needed. Classrooms were designed for desks with a typical distance of 4’6” between them or about 28 desks. Current requirements limit desks to half that amount. Districts do not have the space to return all students to school and meet the current requirements.
- Transportation requirements would need to be altered to allow two students per seat and every seat to be utilized.
- Full access and availability to provide staff vaccinations for all that want them. Districts are asking to be qualified as POD (Points of Distribution) sites. Workforce availability currently is unpredictable due to infection rates in the community and the limited availability of substitutes. Shortages of both bus drivers and personnel for the classroom have been intensified by the pandemic.
- Consistent and widely available publication of the guidance so that parents and community can see what schools must abide by so that both can work better together.
- Timely information on the infection rates related to the reintroduction of athletics, especially high risk sports.
The District will need time to:
- Clean kitchens and re-establish supply chains for consumables and food. In the beginning of a normal year at least 2 weeks are required for set-up and ordering. How suppliers have been affected by extended closures and/or changing consumer demands during the year-long pandemic remains an unknown.
- Clean and place furniture back into classrooms, which was removed to prepare spacing in classrooms and cafeterias.
- Assess current instructional model enrollment and determine potential realignment of staff for in-person and full remote learners.