Governor Kathy Hochul today announced that her strategy to reopen schools safely took a major leap forward on two fronts, demonstrating her administration’s commitment to making the health and well-being of students, teachers, and families a top priority. Earlier today, the Public Health and Health Planning Council passed an emergency regulation and the Health Commissioner issued a determination requiring all teachers, administrators and other school employees to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing unless they show proof of vaccination, with either a CDC vaccine card or the Excelsior Pass.
The Governor also announced that the New York State Department of Health has finalized and released official guidance for classroom instruction. These new actions follow the Governor’s announcement last week of a mask requirement for everyone in school buildings during instructional hours and extracurricular activities. The guidance prioritizes in-person learning and details recommendations and requirements for vaccinations, face masks, physical distancing, and testing to monitor potential transmission, among other areas. The guidance largely tracks with the CDC guidance which districts were advised to follow. It is also intended as a floor and schools have the flexibility to go beyond the guidance.
“My top priority is to get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn, and everyone is safe,” Governor Hochul said. “On day one of my administration, I announced a series of bold back-to-school initiatives, including a universal mask requirement for anyone entering our schools. We are now issuing guidance to make sure our school staff are vaccinated or tested regularly for themselves and their families, our students, and our communities. Our children deserve to be safe and protected in schools, and I am doing everything in my power to guarantee that.”
The emergency regulation, which authorizes the Commissioner to require weekly testing or proof of vaccine, will apply to all schools in New York State until it is no longer necessary as described in the language of the regulation.
During a recent Zoom meeting, school officials, union leaders, and other education advocates asked for State public health professionals to provide additional clarity and guidance on school re-opening. Per the new guidance, schools should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures but should not exclude students from in-person learning to meet a minimum distance requirement. Further, a distance of at least 3 feet is strongly recommended between all students and a distance of at least 6 feet is recommended between students and teachers/staff, and between teachers/staff who are not fully vaccinated. Students and drivers must wear masks on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, regardless of vaccination status, subject to applicable exclusions and exemptions.
State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said, “We need to get all of our children back in schools and in a safe environment which promotes healthy learning. While we continue to work with local school districts and local health departments, we listened to feedback from parents, teachers and education advocates who asked for additional statewide guidance on masks, vaccines, social distancing and testing and for recommendations on challenges like school bus safety and navigating high-risk sports and extracurricular activities.”
The Commissioner’s determination for masking in schools, issued August 27th, applies to all indoor settings, including indoor sports and extracurricular activities. For indoor sports and extracurricular activities in which masking is not possible, such as swimming, a minimum distance of 6 feet must be maintained. Schools are encouraged to implement required screening testing for participants who are not fully vaccinated.
Schools must have capacity and offer screening testing for any teachers and staff at least once a week. Schools must also have the capacity to provide diagnostic testing for any student, teacher, or staff member who is symptomatic or has been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19. There are a variety of options and significant funding to achieve this testing and schools should continue to work closely with their local Department of Health.
In addition to implementing the test-vaccine requirement, DOH recommends that all public school districts and non-public schools should support opportunities for students and staff to access COVID-19 vaccination clinics in collaboration with local health partners. The guidance continues the daily reporting requirement for school districts to ensure they are providing data to the NYS School COVID Report Card, another tool to share COVID-19 information with families and communities.