Schools on Long Island reopened in recent weeks largely focused on pandemic recovery, yet amid an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region and across the state.
The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been rising since July but has remained relatively low when compared to the same period last year. On Long Island, 274 were hospitalized on Sept. 19, compared to 379 on the same date a year ago.
Hempstead schools Superintendent Regina Armstrong said last week that her district has had some staff members out with COVID. “It’s nothing that’s overwhelming us when it comes to absences,” she said.
“Before, it was something brand-new. We were trying to get adjusted to everything,” Armstrong said. “Now we know. … I think we're just more prepared and ready.”
David Wicks, district superintendent of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said there were reports of positive cases at BOCES facilities since schools reopened, but nothing alarming.
It was “nothing that’s getting into the operations of our programs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a level of concern, [but] a level of heightened awareness.”
While school leaders noted their readiness to pivot in case of outbreaks, much of the federal and state guidance that was in place during the height of the pandemic no longer exists for them, and parents, to follow.
Here is what you need to know this school year about COVID-19 protocols.
Is there any state guidance for schools to follow?
No. The state Education Department recommends that schools follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC guidance was last updated in May. The state Department of Health offers the same recommendation.
The state Education Department “currently has no plans to issue additional specific school COVID-19 guidance,” according to the department's website. A spokeswoman for the department said the agency, along with the state Health Department, will continue to monitor the situation.
Under CDC guidelines, what happens if a child tests positive?
Districts should provide excused absences for students who are sick and avoid policies that incentivize their coming to school while sick, the CDC said. Schools also should support children who are learning at home if they are sick.
Armstrong said her district follows CDC guidance on how to handle a positive case for students.
How long should someone isolate if they test positive?
They should stay home for at least five days and isolate from others at home, according to the CDC. They also should wear a high-quality mask if they must be around others at home or in public.
When should someone stop isolating?
That depends on how serious their symptoms are, according to CDC guidance. They may end isolation if they have no symptoms after Day 5. If someone still has symptoms, but those symptoms are improving after Day 5, they may stop isolation if they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.
If their symptoms are not improving, they should continue to isolate until their symptoms are improving and they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.
What about masks?
Regardless of when isolation ends, the CDC recommends people who have tested positive wear a high-quality mask when indoors around others until at least Day 11. (Day 0 is the day you were tested if you had no symptoms, the CDC said. If you had symptoms, Day 0 is the day of symptom onset.)
Otherwise, masks are not required in school. A state mask mandate ended in February 2022.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced earlier this month that the state would make rapid testing kits and N-95 and KN-95 masks available to school districts and BOCES upon request.
Whatever happened to social distancing?
It's a thing of the past.
At the height of the pandemic, classroom desks were separated by plastic dividers, students had to eat lunch at their desks, and CDC guidelines called for students to sit six feet apart. The CDC relaxed those guidelines in March 2021, allowing for at least three feet of space between desks. Now, only the stickers reminding students of distancing remain in some school facilities.
Are parents required to report to schools if their child tests positive?
No, Wicks said. Reporting a positive case is voluntary for students. Schools, however, are required to report cases. “COVID-specific reporting mechanisms (i.e. the school dashboard) that were in place during the height of the pandemic are no longer in place, but reporting cases of notifiable conditions to the local health department is still a responsibility,” according to a state Health Department statement.
What happened to the daily COVID-19 Report Card?
At the height of the pandemic, parents could search the state's COVID-19 Report Card — an online database — to see the number of cases in their child's school.
That database has been defunct and not updated since November 2021. In a letter the state health and education departments wrote to school leaders in August 2022, the agencies said the requirement to report daily COVID-19 testing and case-positive data ended on June 30, 2022.
Even the New York City schools, which reported daily cases among students and staff as recently as Sept. 11, scrapped its map that showed the number of positive cases in schools.
People can track positive tests on the state website, but the health department noted most infections are not reported given many take-home tests, so hospitalization data is a more reliable indicator than reported case data.
What about vaccines?
COVID vaccines are not required by schools.
The CDC earlier this month recommended the new COVID-19 vaccine for everyone 6 months and older, just a day after the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine. State officials have made the same recommendation.
"I urge all New Yorkers to remember that COVID is a treatable disease, and we now have an updated vaccine that will help reduce your chance of serious illness and hospitalization," state Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in a statement.
The CDC recommends schools promote vaccinations. They can do so by establishing supportive policies and practices that make it easy to get vaccinated. For example, they can host vaccinations clinics on site.