ALBANY — New York’s public schools must stay closed for the remainder of the current academic year and should begin working on reopening plans, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
“We must protect our children, students and educators,’’ Cuomo said, adding: “We’re going to err on the side of caution now.”
The teachers’ union has been arguing that schools should not reopen unless vigorous testing and cleaning protocols were put in place.
A decision on whether summer school programs will take place will be made at the end of May, Cuomo said.
If the buildings have to remain closed, the governor said, the summer programs will take place via distance learning.
Remote learning programs will continue for the remainder of the current academic year, Cuomo said.
Using his executive powers, Cuomo, in March, waived a mandate that schools be open for 180 days of the academic calendar in order to qualify for state funding.
“The big question is going to be whether you are going to be ready to reopen schools in September,” Cuomo said.
Also Friday, Cuomo set June 9 as the date for elections to act on proposed school budgets and candidates for local school boards by using mail-in ballots. Voters will be sent postage-paid ballots.
With petitioning for school board candidates now suspended due to social distance measures, Cuomo’s announcement that the elections can move forward without the need to gather signatures from voters drew concerns.
“A lone individual can potentially phone-in requests for ballot applications as if they were placing take-out orders at a restaurant,” said Assembly GOP Leader Will Barclay. “This opens the door for widespread fraud.”
The elections for village and town municipal government seats will be conducted Sept. 15.
While the rise in statewide infections has tapered off in recent weeks, more than 50 New York nursing homes have experienced more than 10 fatalities each.
While Cuomo and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, have defended the state oversight at the homes, former Gov. George Pataki called for a probe Friday night into what he termed Cuomo’s “failed nursing home policies” during the crisis.
Some patient advocates have criticized a state mandate that forces nursing homes to readmit patients who have tested positive for the virus, suggesting the rule increases the threat of infection.
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi, responding to Pataki, said: “It’s sad and unfortunate that in a bid to be relevant, he would resort to cheap and uninformed political attacks.”
Defending the Cuomo policies, Azzopardi said the homes have the option of transferring patients to facilities that have the proper staffing and protection to care for COVID-19 patients.
Cuomo said Friday nursing home operators can be prosecuted criminally for fraud if they misrepresent nursing home deaths in their reports to the state.
More than 18,000 New Yorkers have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus in less than two months, including 289 new fatalities reported over the past day. The trajectory of death from the contagion has been steadily dropping in New York over the past three weeks.
Cuomo said reopening schools poses “issues” when it comes to social distancing measures and transportation of children to classrooms.
“How does a school socially distance?” Cuomo asked rhetorically.
While the decision that schools remain shut applies to all of the approximately 700 school districts across New York, the governor said decisions on summer camp programs will be linked to regional reopening plans which have yet to be issued.
The state’s current shutdown order, applying to all businesses deemed “nonessential,” expires May 15. Cuomo said a decision on whether to extend that will come before that date.
Shortly after the announcement that schools will close, the New York Public High School Athletic Association said it was canceling its spring regular sports seasons.
School athletic associations in 43 other states have already canceled their seasons. A group of superintendents and school athletic directors will now begin meeting regularly to develop a plan for staging interscholastic sports in the fall.
“Many throughout our state were hopeful students would have the chance to participate in high school athletics this spring and return to some sense of normalcy,” Dr. Robert Zayas, the association’s director said. “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has taken a toll on many aspects of our lives and high school athletics is one of them.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org