Better late than never.
The New York State Department of Health released interim guidance last week, which, among other things, requires masks for students and school personnel indoors and on transportation, encourages school districts to maintain 3 feet of physical distancing between students, and outlines requirements and recommendations for quarantining protocols.
The 12-page guidance — released Sept. 2 after some schools, including Scarsdale Schools, had already opened for full-time, in-person instruction on Sept. 1 — also requires teachers and school staff members who are not fully vaccinated to be tested weekly for COVID-19.
In August, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced it would not provide new guidance for schools reopening, despite the surge of cases caused by the highly transmissible delta variant. After Cuomo resigned over sexual harassment allegations, the state’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, said in her inaugural address Aug. 24 that the state needed to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly in order to get students back in the classroom and to ensure schools would be safe.
“We want school personnel vaccinated. That is my No. 1 priority,” Hochul said during a press conference Sept. 8. “As an option, we let them test out and they’ll have to have weekly testing. But it is my sincere hope that everyone will agree with this.”
The state guidance released this month aligns with Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations, which were released in August. The guidance suggests that school districts review their prior year’s reopening plans to eliminate outdated measures and adopt the CDC’s recommendations.
All students and school personnel must adhere to a masking mandate while indoors, but people will not need to wear masks while eating, drinking, singing or playing a wind instrument. If masks are removed, the state said, individuals must be spaced 6 feet apart.
The state also recommends that students and teachers stay distanced by 6 feet while in and out of the classroom and among teachers who aren’t fully vaccinated.
Individuals will not need to wear masks outdoors, although the CDC recommends that unvaccinated people wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings.
During indoor physical education classes where masking isn’t possible, the state mandates that students maintain 6 feet of physical distancing.
In line with the CDC, the state said people who are fully vaccinated and not presenting symptoms wouldn’t need to quarantine if they are considered a close contact (someone who is within 6 feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more in a 24-hour period). The state recommends that close contact individuals who are vaccinated get tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask indoors for two weeks or until a negative test is administered.
The guidance said the New York State Education Department may require school districts to have a plan to continue instruction for quarantined students.
As it pertains to testing, schools must have the capacity to provide testing for students or school staff who are symptomatic or who were exposed to COVID-19 and are asymptomatic. The testing can be completed on-site or at an off-site facility.
Schools must also establish a way to perform or offer screen testing (testing of asymptomatic individuals who aren’t suspected of being infected). Underage students must have parental consent to be screen tested.
According to school officials in Scarsdale and Edgemont, Westchester County has been coordinating with school districts to provide testing, though details about the program are limited.
Edgemont Superintendent Victoria Kniewel told the Inquirer the county was still revising its testing program. According to a letter sent to the Edgemont community Sept. 7, the county’s testing partner, Quadrant Biosciences, will conduct free testing for the district.
Improving air filtration in schools has also been prioritized in the state’s guidance. In addition to increasing natural ventilation through open windows, the state’s guidance suggests portable air filtration units could be added in higher risk areas with limited ventilation options. In classrooms without mechanical ventilation systems, the guidance suggests opening windows or using box fans to cross ventilate rooms. Daily health screenings and temperature checks are not required but can be used according to the guidance as an extra precaution against transmission.
Anyone in the school — vaccinated or not — who shows symptoms related to COVID-19 is required to either provide a negative COVID-19 test result or stay out of school for 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Once someone’s fever breaks for 24 hours, without fever-reducing medication, that person must provide a negative test result before returning to school.
School districts will be required to submit daily reports to the department of health.