Building-level leaders are at the forefront of ensuring the safety and health of students and staff. Amid increasing infection rates and the highly transmittal nature of the Delta variant, planning for this new school year is proving to be challenging and complex. Building-level administrators are being placed in untenable positions of having to prepare for the 2021-22 school year without specific and consistent guidance on key issues. Without statewide guidance, school districts are on their own to determine policies on mandatory vaccinations, testing, contact tracing, physical distancing, and masking. SAANYS has developed the following recommendations to provide support for our over 8,000 members as they prepare to provide a safe, healthy, and fully in-person instructional program.
The decision by the NYS Department of Health to forego the issuance of guidance to school districts was ill advised. Prior to this decision, SAANYS and other education associations were in conversations with the NYS Department of Health and the governor’s office on a wide range of pandemic/education issues. It was anticipated that this guidance would be forthcoming in mid-July. It was surprising then, when on August 5, 2021, Dr. Zucker announced that it was time to “reestablish school districts as the controlling entity for schools.” This announcement set into motion a series of events. On August 10, Commissioner Rosa sent an email to school leaders stating that NYSED would be forthcoming with its own guidance on masks, social distancing, remote learning, transportation, community transmission tracking, and funding sources. SAANYS immediately took proactive steps to solicit specific concerns and issues from our board of directors and the SAANYS Government Relations Committee. A comprehensive list was generated, which became the basis for the SAANYS Executive Committee’s summer planning meeting. Simultaneously, SAANYS staff was using the information from these groups to develop recommendations on reopening schools for the 2021-22 school year.
All of this work became very timely when Executive Director Kevin Casey was asked to attend a meeting with Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul on August 17, 2021. Mr. Casey stressed the need for timely guidance based on expert medical advice. He discussed many of the points in the recommendations that follow and the need for consistent guidance across the state, while remaining sensitive to the need for flexibility.
We understand that the recommendations that follow will not be those shared by all of our membership, as our schools and the communities in which they reside are extremely diverse. The recommendations, however, present a balanced approached based on the expertise gained from members during the last school year and the changing nature of the pandemic and its permutations.
Vaccinations for Students and Staff
Due to the overwhelming data on the efficacy of vaccinations, SAANYS encourages all eligible persons to be fully vaccinated. For adults employed in a school district, it is SAANYS’ position that all school staff must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and if such proof is not provided then the individual must be tested weekly. Further, SAANYS recommends that the testing meet the FDA approval for the intended purposes of diagnostic or screening testing. Additionally, all results should be reported to local county departments of health and shared with school districts.
Subsequently, the same position is taken for the vaccination of students. Until legislation is passed that adds the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of the vaccines required for school attendance, proof of vaccination should be provided and if not provided, the students should be routinely tested (with required parental consent).
SAANYS is aligned with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations for mask wearing. All persons (staff, students, visitors, volunteers, parents), regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks while indoors and on transportation required to attend school. Outdoor mask wearing should not be mandated.
School districts are being placed in difficult positions when parents decide to allow their child to “opt out” of mask wearing. Guidance is needed to support districts as they traverse these situations. School districts need to understand what actions should be taken when parents refuse to send their children to school with masks.
A three feet distance between students should be used when practicable. Any issued guidance should acknowledge that there will be situations (lack of space in many schools, provision of meals, music, sports, and transportation) where three feet distancing cannot be met to achieve the goal of full-time, in-person instruction.
Guidance is needed on what constitutes a medical exemption from mask wearing. The guidance must include who may issue the exemption and what constitutes documented evidence. Further, physician accountability for issuing such exemptions must be ensured.
Screening, Contact Tracing
Additional clarity on the CDC guidance for direct contact is needed for K-12 students. The CDC definition of close contact is stated as: “excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student (laboratory confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) if both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.” This exclusion impacts the provision of meals and snacks, as masks are not worn during those times and may result in significant increases in required contact tracing.
Contact tracing is a very time-consuming function, which fell to building administrators in many areas of the state. In many counties there was insufficient staffing in local departments of health to undertake the amount of contact tracing needed. For the 2021-22 school year, sufficient funding must be provided to the county departments of health to alleviate this task from schools.
The highest priority should be to have students participate in full-time, in-person instruction. Understanding that remote instruction may be needed in extenuating situations, guidance must address such situations. Guidance must address how much remote instruction is required and what type is needed.
Specific guidance on these issues would at a minimum provide a uniform approach across the state. Building leaders need at least this level of guidance to make needed implementation decisions. Policies and procedures made regarding the health and safety of students and staff must be made on current medical and health information. The recommendations offered above align with current practice and will evolve as new information regarding the COVID-19 virus become available.