School districts will decide their own policies on Covid-19 masks and other school safety, the state Department of Health said Thursday.
“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are re-established as the controlling entity for schools. Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, state commissioner of health, in a letter released by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office.
But the State Education Department released a letter from Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, who said the policy reversal by the Cuomo administration was “troubling.”
“The discontinuance of Executive Order 202 does not affect DOH’s statutory responsibilities and the circumstances enveloping the Executive Chamber this week should not otherwise deter DOH from the proper execution of its responsibilities to protect the public health,” she wrote.
And the New York State School Boards Association said, “While we believe in local control, we also value expertise in public health,” said NYSSBA Executive Director Robert Schneider. “Recommendations based on local levels of community infection or transmission would have been helpful, as these vary around the state. NYSSBA will do all it can to help local school officials shoulder this responsibility of ensuring that students and staff are safe in school despite the continuing threats of the coronavirus and all its strains.”
School districts have been eagerly awaiting the state decision so they could get organized for reopening schools in the fall. Several local districts said they had no immediate comment.
Since the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic last spring–since March 13, 2020 when, like a row of dominoes, one district after another announced their decisions to close for days that stretched into months, the state has made major decisions about how they should respond to different aspects of the epidemic.
The state Departments of Health and Education have controlled numerous aspects of how schools would operate, including Covid testing, physical distancing, and vaccination requirements. Sports, other extra-curricular activities, transportation and food programs were among the many programs controlled by state decisions.
Earlier in the day, the New York State Council of School Superintendents said it had been told to expect the decision. It also noted other questions districts had, including on the issue of requiring teachers and staff to be vaccinated.
“We have explained that while court decisions have established the authority of employers to set such requirements for their workers, it is not settled that school districts can unilaterally do so with their unionized employees. New York State United Teachers issued a statement opposing vaccine mandates and numerous unions in other sectors have said that any required testing/vaccination regimen would affect the terms and conditions of employment and thus must be collectively bargained,” the council said.
“Our position is that, if state leaders wish to have all school employees required to either be vaccinated or participate in regular testing, it should enact legislation to facilitate that goal.”
Zucker’s statement also recommended that district leaders review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention July 9 Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.
On July 28, the CDC issued Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People which modified the earlier guidance to recommend, “…universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
Masking requirements continue to stir opposition by some parents and others.