COVID-19 rules fluid as school year looms

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In three weeks, bus-loads of children will be arriving at their neighborhood schools — ready to meet new teachers, new concepts and new friends — in person.

It is unclear, however, what restrictions related to the ongoing pandemic awaits students — and whether those students will be masked or unmasked when they reach the school doors.

While the issue has been a hotbed of tension — including lawsuits on both sides of masking policies — in states where schools are already back in session or have been harder hit by the resurgence of COVID-19 and the Delta variant, it is also becoming a heated topic of discussion locally.

“Very polarizing,” said Rome Board of Education President John Nash at Thursday’s regular meeting of the Rome City School District’s Board of Education of the looming possibility of reinstated COVID-19 restrictions when the city’s schools reopen in just a few weeks, “and it’s mostly centered around masking.”

To Nash’s point, a speaker during the meeting’s public comment forcefully decried universal masking and urged district officials not to enact one.

State guidance

On Aug. 5, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, issued a terse statement that read, in its entirety, “With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools. Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments.”

On Aug. 11, Rome City School District Superintendent Peter C. Blake, responded to a query from the Sentinel regarding any clarity around what Zucker’s statement might mean for the re-opening of Rome schools to say that he – together with all New York State school districts – had received a letter on Aug. 10 from state Education Commissioner Dr. Betty A. Rosa, promising that the Education Department would provide districts with further guidance by the end of that week and to request “that districts not make any formal announcements regarding plans/protocols for the return of students in the fall at this point.”

Blake expected that there would be a “brief discussion” on the issue at Thursday’s regular Board of Education meeting, but stated that he did not intend to release any official or formal information until sometime the following week.

On Aug. 12, less than three hours before the Regular Meeting of the Rome Board of Education was gaveled open, the office of the New York State Commissioner of Education issued a release titled, “State Education Department Issues Health and Safety Guide to Reopen New York State Schools.” 

In the release, which contained a link to the guide, it stated that “the health and safety guide provides schools with a resource to safely start the school year and sustain the educational process in a manner that serves all students and supports their return to in-person learning in partnership with the communities they serve. The guide is based on the best health and safety information currently available and will be updated as public health conditions change.” 

The release acknowledges the rise in COVID-19 infections and that districts now face opening schools for the second consecutive year under conditions of a pandemic. “We must ensure that our schools and districts have the most up-to-date resources and mitigation strategies to keep our children and school staff safe,” said Rosa.

The guide is based largely on guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and is intended to be used in conjunction with other local health and safety resources. It can be found on the Education Department’s “Back to School” website.

CDC guidance

Contained within the guide prepared by New York State is a summary of the CDC’s updated guidance on masks based upon emerging evidence that reveals the Delta variant of Covid-19, the now predominant strain in the U.S., to be more infectious and to have led to increased transmissibility compared to other variants, even in vaccinated individuals.

“Thus, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission levels.”

The guide goes on to confirm per the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics that “when teachers, staff and students consistently and correctly wear a mask, they protect others, as well as themselves.” The CDC also recommends that schools have a sufficient supply of masks available for students and staff who forget their own or need a replacement, including on school buses.

CDC guidance as it impacts the re-opening of schools includes:

Universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools;

Recommending 3 feet of physical distancing between students and staff – together with mask-wearing – and 6 feet of physical distancing for unvaccinated students and staff.

Cohorting to isolate spread.

Physical distancing on school buses is not being currently recommended.

Fully vaccinated students and staff are not required to quarantine after an exposure.

School sports should be examined based upon the transmission rate in the given community and periodic COVID-19 screening should take place to monitor the degree of spread among members of a given team.

The Education Commissioner states that, so long as allowed by public health officials, schools should be open for in-person teaching and learning. However, she further states that, “in case of school closures due to a declared public health emergency, schools must be prepared to provide remote instruction.”

Little different, officials say

Later on Aug. 12, Nash acknowledged the receipt of the guide from the Education Department and summarized it to say that there was “nothing really new in there” and that “the CDC is changing a little of their recommendations.”

Where Nash acknowledged that the polarization being experienced by the Rome community centered on masking. The latest CDC guidance, as just released, is unlikely to reduce that polarization.

Nash also focused upon the need for quarantining being eliminated for vaccinated persons and pointed out that, last year, Oneida was a more rigorous country with respect to quarantining. He also pointed out that no physical distancing would be required on school buses and no more remote learning unless a student has a medical need.

Nash was upbeat and encouraging that Rome students would be “in school, full time, close to what it was two years ago.”

The joint recommendation by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics that universal masking in schools is now recommended. His reference to masking, outside of acknowledging its role in the division among the community, was limited to noting that the state Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul, is in favor of a mask mandate and would be seeking information from state school districts regarding that.

Hochul will be sworn in as governor in less than two weeks when the resignation of the current governor takes effect.

Speaker assails mask-mandate

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Jeff Buckley – who shared that he has been a resident of the district for 21 years – rose to share the position that there should be no mask mandate, that it should be a decision for the parents to make. “If you want a mask, use it,” said Buckley. “If you don’t, don’t.”

Buckley went on to say that “for every 30 studies that say one thing, there are 30 studies that say another,” where it can be assumed that he referred to studies on the efficacy of mask-wearing.

He further stated that school mask mandates were effectively robbing students of the presumption of innocence, and treating them as “guilty” … “less than” by requiring masks. He also shared that he believed that catching up from last year should be a priority over current medical guidance.

“Most people are asymptomatic. It is insane,” said Buckley. “People get sick. It’s part of life.”

Currently, the United States Center for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Journal of the American Medical Association all agree that mask-wearing mitigates the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

While Nash acknowledges the deeply differing points of view on the issue of mask wearing in school, he remained focused on common ground. “Both sides do agree,” said Nash, “that school needs to be open full time, no remote, no hybrid.”

Blake added that formal guidance with regard to these issues and the re-opening of Rome schools will be delivered sometime this week.

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