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Education leaders say most staff members vaccinated, but testing questions remain

Teachers and staff in public and private schools,

Teachers and staff in public and private schools, pre-K through 12th grade, will have to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19, or submit to weekly testing, the state announced Thursday. Credit: NY.Gov

Long Island teacher union leaders and administrators on Friday said most of their staffs were already vaccinated — and agreed a COVID-19 testing mandate for teachers and staff could help identify cases — but they questioned how testing procedures would work.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced that teachers and staff who could not prove they were vaccinated would be required to submit weekly to coronavirus testing, as well as to a host of other school safety measures, as mandated by the state Department of Health.

The state's health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, said the mandates were effective immediately and applied to public and private school staff and teachers in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

"I do think it is a good idea. Everybody has to play their part to get the virus behind us," said Richard Haase, an English teacher at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills in the Half Hollow Hills School District.

Haase, president of the teachers union for Half Hollow Hills, said about 90% of the district's teachers were vaccinated.

What to know

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced that teachers, administrators and other school employees must submit to weekly COVID-19 testing unless they can show proof of vaccination.
  • Schools must offer testing for teachers and staff at least once a week. Schools also must have the capacity to provide testing for any student, teacher or staff member who is symptomatic or has been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19.
  • Schools must report to the COVID Report Card, which tracks rates of positive cases of students and staff.

Montauk Superintendent Jack Perna said his district already had planned to test staff and had informed employees, "So I am glad that it came out from the state as a directive."

Proof of vaccination

The district has asked for proof of vaccination to be submitted to the school nurse, and others will need to bring in proof of a negative test next week to start the school year, which begins Wednesday. He said the district was awaiting assistance from Suffolk County with testing materials and procedures.

Suffolk health department spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said in an email: "Suffolk County has always coordinated with our school partners and will continue to do so … The recently released directive is currently under review and we are exploring how to best to assist our schools with compliance."

In Nassau County, spokesman Jordan Carmon said in an email: "We continue to be in conversation with school officials regarding plans for testing and vaccination."

Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said meetings had been held with staff, but the testing requirement lead to "more questions than answers for us," such as where would testing take place and what did a school district do with those who refused to get tested?

He said he expected this mandate would have to be collectively bargained with staff.

"We know the value of in-person instruction, and we want to maintain that," Dillon said. "It’s another idea that appears at this time half-baked and not ready for consumption yet, but we will work on it and I’m sure there will be further guidance."

Local health departments "will work with districts to implement the requirements expeditiously to ensure student and staff safety," the state health department said Friday.

Rapid and PCR tests

Malverne Superintendent Lorna Lewis said her district had set up weekly mobile on-site testing at a high school field house, similar to what was done for graduation when about 500 people were tested before the ceremony.

Rapid tests will be offered, as well as PCR tests — which are sent to a lab for results and take longer — upon request.

Vaccinated staff will report their status to the school nurse, Lewis said. The state's guidance is "clear and timely," she said.

Kevin Coyne, president of the Brentwood Teachers Association, said 85% to 90% of teachers in his district were vaccinated. Testing of teachers would have to be worked out through collective bargaining, he said.

The union supports testing of staff and masking in schools, he said, but the testing will be a "logistical nightmare" for a large district such as Brentwood, which enrolls about 19,000 students and has about 3,000 teachers. Students return Thursday.

Coyne expressed concern about Zucker's mandate that "schools are required to offer screening testing to unvaccinated students on a weekly basis in geographic areas identified by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as having moderate, substantial, or high transmission rates." Districts would have to obtain consent for testing from parents for minors.

"There is no strategy," Coyne said, adding that he was still reviewing the state's directive. "There's not a lot of guidance, and they are using words like recommendations, and that falls in a very gray area. Sadly, this is another boondoggle to put parents against their schools and teachers."

Hochul's latest announcement came just weeks after school leaders had been told by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that districts would be on their own to plan for reopenings. The state is not requiring teachers to be vaccinated, although Hochul initially had planned to require it.

The state’s Special Public Health and Health Planning Council Thursday authorized routine COVID-19 testing in schools and other settings, such as nursing homes.

Federal funds for COVID testing

The panel's recommendations noted that the state had received $335 million in federal funds for school-related testing.

Health department spokeswoman Jill Montag said in an email: the state "has made that funding available to local health departments" for testing unvaccinated school staff members and others.

The panel also approved the daily reporting requirement for school districts to ensure they were providing data to the school COVID Report Card, which tracks positive cases of students and staff. The same panel passed a mask mandate in late July, which was mandated by the health department in late August.

The additions to public health law included a maximum $1,000 fine for violations.

After steadily rising for weeks, the seven-day average rate of positive test results Thursday fell for the second day in a row statewide and remained roughly level on Long Island.

On Long Island, there were 1,192 positive test results on Thursday, leading to a seven-day average of 4.28%, compared with 4.27% on Wednesday and 4.44% on Tuesday.

Statewide, the rate was 3.26%, down from 3.36% on Tuesday.

Two Suffolk residents and one Nassau resident were among the 28 people statewide who died of COVID-19 on Thursday.

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