The decision over closing schools amid rising coronavirus rates in New York remains largely a local one, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday said, as the statewide labor organization that represents teachers said school communities must have confidence in plans to stay open.
The concern over keeping schools open comes as some counties in New York are reaching positive COVID-19 rates of 9% or higher, triggering testing in schools and a renewed debate over whether children should be attending classes in person.
Schools in areas of high COVID-19-positive rates are conducting tests of school staff and students. If the schools show positive rates below 9%, they can remain open.
"My position has always been if the children are safer in the school than they are on the streets of the community, then children should be in school," Cuomo said on Monday.
The governor has not been eager to close schools throughout the crisis, pointing to the burden of doing so that is placed on parents, esepcially those who work as frontline essential workers during the pandemic.
At the same time, positive COVID-19 cases have been generally lower in schools than in the community at large, leading to hope that schools can safely operate.
Schools have been operating largely in on a hybrid model of some students attending school in person, others staying at home and learning remotely.
The disruption of the springtime closure, Cuomo has said, is something he does not want to replicate. Still, Cuomo is leaving the decision to close at the feet of local officials as COVID rates continue to rise in the new year across the state and country.
"We're testing in the schools, so we know the positivity rate in the schools," Cuomo said at his Monday news conference.
"We know the positivity rate in the community. If the schools are safer then my opinion, just an opinion not a fact, my opinion is leave the schools open. That will be up to the school districts across the State. I understand the privacy and the history of local control of education. I respect it. I gave my opinion, but it will be up to the local school districts to decide."
The New York State United Teachers in a statement Monday evening said it is "important to err on the side of caution." That includes having the confidence of teachers, students and parents to continue operating safely.
"Testing data is important, but we believe school districts must still make decisions about in-person and remote instruction in consultation with parents and educators," said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. "The entire school community must have the confidence in a district’s plan to stay open, reopen or expand its in-person offerings as infection rates rise in the surrounding community and regions surpass a 9 percent infection rate. Where there isn’t confidence, remote education is the only viable option.”