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Educators say Cuomo's school reopening strategy falls short

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said it will be

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said it will be up to the local school districts to decide on a return to instruction using an in-person, hybrid, remote or another educational model.  Credit: Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo / Kevin P. Coughlin

On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave schools the go-ahead to open, citing COVID-19 positive test rates in every region well below the 5% level he’d set as a benchmark for resuming in-person instruction. 

But he also asked that all districts post on their websites explanations of:

  • How they will handle remote learning, and address equity issues.
  • How they will handle coronavirus testing, with specifics, including quarantining.
  • How they will do contract tracing if someone tests positive for the virus.

That’s a lot to ask, and school officials say that could doom any bid to get the kids back in their classrooms. 

“If this is the precondition for opening the schools, districts are not going to be able to open the schools,” former Rockville Centre superintendent and current Hempstead monitor Bill Johnson told The Point Friday. “School districts are not going to be able to do this, because they don’t have the expertise, or the money.”

Johnson said districts can’t set protocols for testing, tracing and quarantining, which must be mandated by either the state Department of Health or county health departments like Nassau’s, from whom the county’s superintendents have been trying to get guidance.

And Johnson isn’t the only one worried about non-educational requirements. “We are going to meet with County Executive Laura Curran and county Commissioner of Health Lawrence Eisenstein next week, for the second time in a month,” Nassau BOCES Superintendent Robert Dillon told The Point. “We can’t have 56 plans on how to do this in Nassau, devised by districts for whom that is not an expertise.”

Long Island Board of Regents representative Roger Tilles shares these concerns, but has others, too, focused on both the shortage of money and the shortage of available resources.

“You can ask districts to share a plan for equity and distance learning, but it does not change the fact that the best estimate I’ve seen is that it would cost $450 million to get computer devices and hot spots for every student in the state who needs them,” Tilles said. “The same is true for buses and bus drivers, PPE, and cleaners and cleaning equipment. There is no money, the governor has warned districts of potentially huge cuts in state aid, and even if there were money, that wouldn’t mean there would be availability of these items and personnel.”

A statement from the state Education Department and the Regents, unusual in how openly it seemed to challenge Cuomo and other elected officials, echoed Tilles’ concerns, decrying the “‘digital divide,’ the lack of equitable access that disproportionately affects low income, minority and rural populations.”

Clearly they are saying no-go without the dough.

 The statement goes on to say, “We cannot even begin to bridge this divide and address the critical safety, educational and emotional concerns that COVID-19 has exacerbated without the Governor, Legislature and State Education Department coming together to find real solutions and funding to provide equity for all our students.”

State Ed also made clear the  state Health Department has to take the lead role, arguing that the agency, not districts, is responsible for “determining the appropriate health and safety measures districts must take.”

Then there is the New York State United Teachers, which is arguing that parents and educators in many districts are not confident in the plans they’ve seen. The union signed off saying, “If districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution, period.”

So Cuomo says the schools can open but districts have to tell parents and teachers how they’ll provide distance learning, equity and public safety. The educators say they’re still waiting on Cuomo to tell them the same thing.   

Said Tilles: “To me, right now, the fact that Cuomo says you can open the schools isn’t the same as having a reason and a plan to do so.”