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State Education Department looks to Department of Health for schools reopening guidance

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ALBANY — State Education Department officials say the state Department of Health should have released guidance on safely reopening schools rather than placing it in each district’s hands.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker said Thursday that the governor’s office and state Department of Health will not provide health guidance to school districts this fall. Instead, the responsibility lies with individual school districts to decide on things like masking and social distancing, based on updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools,” Dr. Zucker said. “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.”

But, in a statement on the state Education Department website, officials said the guidance should be coming from the top. They said Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa had sent a letter asking Dr. Zucker “to consider DOH’s statutory responsibilities as the state agency devoted to protecting the public health.”

They said Public Health Law charges the Department of Health with “exercising control over and supervising the abatement of nuisances affecting or likely to affect public health as well as supervising and advising any local unit of government and the public health officials thereof within the state in the performance of their officials duties.”

But, the decision by the Department of Health didn’t follow those guidelines, SED officials said.

“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,” they said. “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.”

Local schools are now planning how they will address the opening of school on Sept. 3.

“Now that the school has learned the Department of Health will not be issuing guidance for schools this fall, we will be constructing our plans baed on the most up-to-date guidance from the CDC. The top priority will always be the safety of students, staff and the greater community,” Norwood-Norfolk Central School Superintendent James Cruikshank said in his latest superintendent update.

He stressed the importance of returning to in-person learning after a year in which some students learned in person, others learned remotely and some learned through a hybrid schedule of some in-person and some remote learning.

“A return to full in-person learning is essential as remote learning highlighted inequities in education, was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages, and exacerbated the mental health crisis among children and adolescents. We must have our students present for in-person learning opportunities, but it is imperative that we do so safely,” Mr. Cruikshank said.

He said they would stress safety through coordination with local public health officials and regional north country schools.

“We understand the social, emotional, and mental health needs for in-person instruction. We recognize the value and importance of extracurricular activities and athletics. However, we must achieve the appropriate balance between safety and wellbeing. In coordination with public health and our regional North Country schools, it’s important that all students return to in-person learning. Through proper science-based planning, we believe we will have a plan that strikes the delicate balance of getting all children back to school safely,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Officials also recommend schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk. When it’s not possible to maintain at least 3 feet, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies.

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