Since New York first went on “Pause” in March, very few students in our state have been afforded the opportunity to participate in five-day in-person learning- something we previously had considered a basic right prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a number of students, this loss of in-school instruction has been damaging to their social and educational development and health. This is why leading public health advocates like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have highlighted the importance of bringing back in-person classroom education. AAP President Lee Savio Beers, M.D., FAAP, said in a release, “Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being, and so safety in schools and in the community must be a priority.”
Last August, the NYS Department of Health (NYSDOH) & NYS Education Department (NYSED) published its initial guidance for schools regarding distancing, mask wearing, busing, and the potential need for additional physical barriers to mitigate and reduce the risk of spreading this virus. While some schools have been able to successfully comply with these standards and offer five-day in-person education in our state, I also understand the existing state guidance has caused significant confusion among many local elected leaders and school administrators. Several of these stakeholders have expressed that the guidance lacks the clarity desired for them to confidently transition back to a traditional in-person learning option.
This past week, as the Ranking Minority Member of the Assembly Committee on Health, I participated in over 12 hours of questions and answers during our joint legislative health budget hearing. The importance of updating the state’s guidance on in-person education was one of the many issues raised. My colleagues and I were successful in getting the NYSDOH Commissioner to acknowledge the importance of this issue and need for the department to update its guidance. While the Commissioner’s words were welcomed, my colleagues and I are still not taking anything for granted. It is critical that NYSDOH and NYSED revise and update its guidance based on what we’ve learned about this virus since last summer, and provide local school boards and administrators the information and confidence they need to safely bring back in-person learning.
The state must also be mindful that it cannot simply place more costly unfunded mandates on school districts that could impede their ability to re-open. Additionally, the state must consider and offer updated guidance on whether or not desk barriers are necessary, including if students are less than 6 ft. apart while also wearing masks. It should also be made clear that any and all barriers required must conform with local building department and fire protection regulations. The House of Representatives recently passed a federal aid package to address the growing cost of this pandemic. Coronavirus relief funds should be used specifically for coronavirus related expenses. I believe protecting our kids from this virus while allowing them the option to safely have in-person learning at school would be an appropriate use of those funds.
New York State must also provide clear quarantine guidelines that are safe, practical and permit in-person classrooms to thrive. In this instance, a county by county approach is less appropriate as it increases confusion among local schools and creates an environment where various county health departments may contradict each other.
This issue is simply too important for us to delay any further. For students, parents, teachers, administrators and more, updating the state guidance to help local officials safely bring back in-person learning needs to be a top priority.
The above information was previously distributed and made public for immediate release by the Office of Assemblyman Kevin Byrne