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State Department of Education Issues Back-to-School COVID Guidance

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August 13, 2021

By Barrett Seaman—

School administrators looking for more granular guidance on how to re-open schools next month finally heard back from the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) on Thursday. There appeared to be no surprises in the 21-page report, replete with glossy photos of school children and school activities that could have been taken at any time, except for the ubiquitous face masks.

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Overall, the report called for “a layered approach to mitigation strategies in schools, based on levels of community transmission,” recommending that schools adjust their policies according to the COVID infection rate in the surrounding community. Since Westchester County currently has a “substantial” transmission rate, schools here are urged to take a more rigorous approach.

The top line message is that all schools are expected to teach in person in the coming school year, though they should be prepared to revert to remote or hybrid strategies should there be a significant surge in infections. Otherwise, the core recommendations are largely consistent with previous guidance, to wit:

  • Promoting vaccination (but not requiring it…yet);
  • Consistent and correct use of masks;
  • Physical distancing;
  • Screening testing to quickly identify cases;
  • Improved ventilation;
  • Proper handwashing and respiratory etiquette;
  • Staying home when sick and getting tested;
  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine; and
  • Routine cleaning with disinfection.
  • Thus, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission levels.

Of more practical use to educators in the report: following CDC guidance, the state recommends at least three feet distance between (masked) students in classrooms and six feet for both students and faculty still unvaccinated.

Density of student use of cafeterias should be based on surrounding community transmission rates. Whether to allow close contact sports and other extracurricular activities with elevated transmission risk (singing, band and others that involve increased exhalation) will depend on surrounding community infection and vaccination rates but should include sample testing of those involved in those activities.

“The CDC no longer recommends temperature screenings or screening questionnaires at school,” reads the report. “However, schools should be proactive that children experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should be tested for COVID-19 and stay home.”

In pointing out that there is financial support to be had from both the state and, more significantly, the federal government, the guidance report ended on a high note: “To ease the burden on schools, NYSED encourages schools and districts to leverage existing and pending federal funding to support the safe return to school. Resources that may be available to schools and districts include the over $14 billion in federal education stimulus funding awarded to New York State since March of 2020,” both through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, the Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA Act); and American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.

The next step is for the County Department of Health to issue guidelines for schools here. When it does, the various superintendents and heads of private schools can be expected to re-state their policies.

“The Irvington [District] is nimble and prepared to be flexible and responsive in its planning for the reopening of schools,” commented that district’s superintendent, Kristopher Harrison, “and will, without question, make all decisions in the best interest of the health and safety of our students and staff.”

With conditions changing on an almost daily basis, agility will be required.

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