ALBANY — With the 2021-22 school year set to open in just five weeks, school administrators say they are eagerly awaiting guidance from the state officials on new COVID-19 protocols.
An increase in infections from the virus' delta variant, meanwhile, could dash the hopes of parents, students and school officials that the coming school year will more closely resemble pre-pandemic 2019 than last year, when large numbers of students had to be switched into remote learning.
"The number one question we are getting from our superintendents is: When will we be getting the guidance from the state?" said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Questions are already swirling about whether the state will require employees of school districts to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or face repeated testing.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signaled Wednesday that state government employees will have to be vaccinated by Sept. 13 or be tested regularly. He warned the schools threaten to become "super-spreaders" of the virus and noted it is within the authority of school districts to mandate vaccinations for employees.
In the nation's largest public school system, New York City, public school teachers and other staffers now face a vaccination mandate. Mayor Bill de Blasio, in issuing the edict, declared: "This is going to be a fight to keep the vaccinations moving more than the variant.”
Statewide, with the sudden rise in infections from the delta variant, Lowry said "the whole situation now is obviously fluid."
But he emphasized guidance is needed for schools so they can make plans based on the social distancing, facial mask and transportation policies the state tells districts to follow..
For instance, he noted, one superintendent said he may have to purchase new desks if distancing rules interfere with plans to have some students share tables for certain classes.
Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, said he expects the guidelines being developed by both the state Education Department and the Department of Health will be consistent and will recognize the need for potential pivots as the contagion takes unexpected twists.
"To be fair to the state, COVID has been a moving target," Worona said. He said he has been advised by high-level officials in the governor's office that the state guidance for school districts is expected to be issued soon.
As for districts mandating the vaccinations of staff on their own, Worona said he knows of no provision in the law governing school districts that would allow for such a move.
The looming school year is also expected to reopen the debate over whether students and staff should be required to wear masks in school buildings.
Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls city school district, said he believes a mask mandate is unnecessary.
Nearly 1,500 students have been enrolled in the district's summer school programs since June 28. "We haven't had one case" of a COVID-19 infection during that period, Laurrie noted.
"What tells me is a mask mandate is not needed," he added. noting approximately nine out of 10 students have been wearing them without a mandate.
Laurrie also said a vaccine mandate for staff would be unworkable since the shots are still in the experimental trial stage.
"I don;'t think there is any way the unions would agree to that," Laurrie emphasized. He estimated that between 85 and 90% of school district staffers have had the shots and it is unlikely that the remainder could be nudged into agreeing to get the vaccination.
David Little, director of the New York State Rural Schools Association, said districts are preparing to reopen their doors with students back inside physical classrooms.
As for imposing a vaccination mandate on teachers and other staffers, Little said, "The state of New York controls public education, and that kind of a declaration would probably have to come from the state."
Cuomo, speaking to a business group, warned that having effective protocols for schools is crucial.
“If we don’t take the right actions, schools can become super-spreaders,” he said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org