School districts hoping for updated state COVID guidance ahead of new school year

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Jul. 30—WATERTOWN — While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given updated mask guidance this week, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said school districts should prepare to take aggressive action as virus cases rise across the state and country, school districts continue to wait for updated state guidance ahead of the new school year.

The CDC recommended Tuesday that some people vaccinated against COVID-19 resume wearing face masks indoors in areas of "high" or "substantial" transmission of COVID-19.

All students, staff and visitors to K-12 schools should wear masks when students resume in-person learning in the fall, regardless of vaccination status, the CDC said, though it's unclear still if New York state will change its mask mandates.

Gov. Cuomo has said the state is reviewing the CDC's new recommendations closely in consultation with federal and state health experts.

"We haven't received any guidance and it's something that we've all been asking for before school even got out," said Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr. "So what we're doing is we're working within the current guidance that existed at the end of last school year."

Gov. Cuomo said Wednesday that New York may expand its legal authority to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine in public school districts as virus cases rise with the emergence of the delta variant.

New York's coronavirus positivity rate was 2.23% Wednesday, and the north country's positivity rate as of Wednesday was 1.82%, according to the governor's office.

According to Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, masks and all the mitigation efforts are embedded in the public health law as part of the sanitary code, so they are, to a certain extent, the county's responsibility under public health. He made it clear he and other decision makers will leave it up to the New York State Departments of Health and Education to issue guidance to schools, and schools should respond accordingly.

"We're not in any high risk area," he said. "Is it a matter of concern? Yes, but I would tell you it's more of a vaccination issue. Masks are just a mitigation issue, but it doesn't correct the problem. Vaccination corrects the problem."

At the end of the day, if the district were told that everyone had to wear masks again, but that the distancing restrictions could be loosened up a bit, Ms. LaBarr said she thinks that would be very doable, but if the distancing has to stay at three feet, and in some cases, six feet, the district will have bigger concerns about having all kids able to return to full in-person instruction.

"We are all still waiting for the long-awaited reopening rules from the N.Y. State DOH telling us what the rules for social distancing inside schools and on buses will be," said Jefferson-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Stephen J. Todd. "Until we have that guidance, all schools in the state are really in a holding pattern."

If guidance does not favor lessening distance restrictions, Ms. LaBarr said the district still has the possibility to have kids eat lunch in their classrooms like when grades K-6 returned to the schools last year, but bussing kids to and from school would be another matter entirely.

Though "Plan A" is always to have students physically return to school, she said, the pandemic has taught her to come prepared with backup plans in the event things take a turn and the district needs to switch to something else.

"Our goal is to have all of our students return to school and in-person instruction in September, but we can't make that definitive decision until we have guidance to make sure that we can comply with all that comes our way," Ms. LaBarr said. "I know it's been a big frustration for a lot of superintendents, and not just New York state."

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