New York’s governor announced that the state’s schools would be able to open this fall. Several criteria were provided, some that allowed the schools to open and others that would cause in-person classes to be suspended.
I thought it would be of value to review these criteria. Since many other states are still making decisions, it would be interesting to see if these criteria are broadly applicable.
This summer, Gov. Cuomo set a threshold number to decide if was safe to bring students back. He said the state would allow a return to the classroom in areas where fewer than 5% of people being tested for COVID-19 were positive over a 14 day period. The entire state of New York currently meets that criteria. If that number goes above 9% for a 7 day period, in person classes would be discontinued.
These criteria are entirely arbitrary, but have some rationale as they give insight into the incidence of new COVID-19 infections in the state. However, even in New York they are not universally accepted. NYC’s mayor has stated that their schools will only open for in person classes if less than 3% of NYC individuals being tested for COVID-19 were positive. He gave no reason for the difference in criteria.
While the state has also defined that students will be required to wear masks throughout each school day, many of the more specific decisions about managing schools were left to individual districts. These include issues like what to do with sick students, how much time children will spend in class, and whether to delay in-person instruction.
School districts were also required to develop safety plans, securing protective gear and figuring out how to manage with fewer students in classrooms and buses. Cuomo required all school systems to submit reopening plans and won’t allow any district without a plan to bring students into classrooms. At present, about 50 district’s plans are still incomplete or deficient, Cuomo said.
While parents were mostly relieved by the announcement, it was dismissed by the teachers unions that demanded clearer health protocols and a rule that schools should shut down immediately for two weeks if any student or staff member contracts the virus.
Teachers are prohibited from striking in New York state, but large numbers could still refuse classroom teaching for medical reasons or simply refuse to work. Governor Cuomo 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.”
Probably the most important thing New York has done is define a path forward. Outlining how and when things can happen helps all the local districts deal with their decisions. This is less about the science behind the criteria, which are really arbitrary and, paradoxically, really can’t be questioned since there are no supporting data. Also, while not all of the constituencies involved in schools are pleased with the decision, it allows parents to start making plans.
This may be a prototype for other states to follow. It shows that it doesn’t really matter what the criteria are or how active coronavirus is in a state. People are looking for direction.