The state Education Department issued new COVID-19 guidelines Thursday for opening K-12 schools in New York state this fall, including recommendations for universal indoor masking, physical distancing and testing.
Much of the 21-page document is based on recently released guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
One of the standout state-level recommendations, however, includes a call to cancel high-risk sports involving close contact or indoor extracurricular activities in communities with high levels of COVID-19 transmission, unless all participants in the sport are vaccinated against COVID-19.
More than two dozen out of 62 counties statewide qualified as high transmission as of Thursday, and dozens more could soon join the group based on federal data.
Education Commissioner Betty Rosa noted the document “provides recommendations based on the best health and safety information currently available.”
She also added it “is a living document that will be updated as public health conditions change.”
Educators statewide have emphasized the state-level guidelines, in particular on mask wearing, will provide much needed stability to a chaotic back-to-school season. A prior effort to craft guidelines was derailed last week amid a political firestorm surrounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced his resignation Tuesday under the weight of sexual harassment allegations against him.
Meanwhile, incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday that she expects New York will have a mask mandate in schools this fall amid a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe there will end up being mask mandates. I just don’t have the authority at this moment,” she said on NBC’s TODAY show. She takes over as governor effective Aug. 24.
The Education Department effectively stepped into the void left by the Cuomo administration’s Department of Health, which declined last week to issue long-awaited universal guidance for school openings this fall.
What NY Education Department guidelines say about COVID
The Education Department guidelines draw many of the COVID-19 infectious disease control and prevention practices from the CDC rules released on July 27.
Among the state recommendations for K-12 schools in New York:
- Universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission levels.
- Maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms.
- When schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining the 3-feet distances, it is important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as cohorting.
- A distance of at least 6 feet is recommended between students and teachers/staff, and between teachers/staff who are not fully vaccinated.
Further, the guidelines state “people who are fully vaccinated can refrain from quarantine following a known exposure if they are asymptomatic, facilitating continued participation in in-person learning, sports, and extracurricular activities.”
However, fully vaccinated people should get tested 3-5 days after their exposure, even if they do not have symptoms, and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative, the guidance added.
Schools are also called on to cooperate with health officials to report confirmed COVID cases and facilitate contact tracing and quarantines of symptomatic and unvaccinated people, the document noted.
As for COVID-19 testing, the state guidelines call for deploying screening testing strategies in communities where the virus is spreading fastest or with low vaccination rates.
The screening test strategy could also be used “for participants who are not fully vaccinated and seek to participate in sports, extracurricular activities, or other activities with elevated risk,” the guidance says. That includes activities that involve singing, shouting, band, and exercise that could lead to increased exhalation.
The CDC no longer recommends temperature screenings or screening questionnaires at school, the state guidance notes.
“However, schools should be proactive that children experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should be tested for COVID-19 and stay home,” the document added.
Further, the state guidelines call on schools to continue to regularly clean buildings and school buses, while also improving ventilation whenever possible and encouraging proper hygiene to combat the virus’ spread.
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