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State health, education officials speak of hurdles to reopening schools

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during a coronavirus

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during a coronavirus briefing in April. Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

Inadequate supplies, infrastructure and funding are hampering efforts to safely reopen schools or resume remote learning this fall amid the threat of the coronavirus, New York State health and education officials said Wednesday.

Limited numbers of rapid coronavirus testing devices, spotty internet access and lengthy back-orders on electronic equipment for remote learning are among the challenges officials listed in a virtual discussion with the State Senate Education Committee.

The discussion came as lawmakers and educators await Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement, due this week, on whether schools can reopen. New York’s education and health departments released guidelines on school reopenings last month, and school districts last week submitted their own reopening plans to the agencies for review.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker expressed little confidence that rapid coronavirus testing would be possible at schools, owing to shortages of the machines that process the tests.

“We’re not there,” he said. “Until the manufacturing of these devices and the manufacturing of this equipment is revved up, I don’t see us getting there.”

Another thing in short supply: equipment for remote learning.

“Every school district in the country is looking for devices,” said Phyllis Morris, the state education agency’s chief financial officer. “There’s just some supply chain challenges.”

Kimberly Young Wilkins, the agency’s deputy commissioner,said some districts placed orders for such equipment in the spring and still have not received it.

Officials stressed the need for federal leadership and assistance in tackling such challenges. Zucker said there should have been a nationwide strategy for addressing the shortage of testing equipment.

Dan Fuller, an assistant secretary for education in Cuomo’s administration, said the federal government should help cover school districts’ COVID-related costs.

“These expenses that schools and other sections of our economy are facing are essentially unprecedented,” he said. “This is the sort of thing that we need the federal government to provide the funding for.”

The discussion among the senators and state officials began shortly after two teachers unions released statements demanding New York require a school to close for 14 days if anyone there tests positive for the virus.

“This is no time to take risks,” read the statement from Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers. “If the state allows school buildings to reopen, districts must be prepared to close them in the event of a positive case.”

The appeal comes as concern mounts among teachers nationwide about the safety of reopening schools amid the pandemic.

“There is no room for error,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said Wednesday in his statement. “New York City’s reopening ‘plan’ lacks specifics on what happens if there’s a positive case. The state must step in for the sake of New York City students, educators and families, and those across the state.”

The safety of teachers — and of students and staff — was a focus of the senators and state officials Wednesday. Fuller said school districts must accommodate teachers who may not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction.

Shannon Tahoe, interim commissioner of education, also said the state hopes to offer training to teachers who found remote instruction challenging.

Another hurdle to distance learning, officials said, is limited internet access in some communities.

“If we don’t address this soon, these kids are going to be having severe academic deficits going forward,” Tahoe said.

With the traditional first day of school approaching, senators expressed frustration that there was not more clarity on how and whether schools will reopen.

School districts feel “there is no clear direction from State Ed of what to do,” said State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).Districts “are so frustrated that they are not getting any type of response for them to move forward.”

Zucker called reopening schools critical but urged caution about the process.

“Above all we must keep children, teachers and the staff safe. An ill-prepared reopening could put students, staff and parents in peril,” he said.

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