May/June 2021 Issue
April 26, 2021

Safe reopening involves more than distancing

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United

Districts across the state spent the late winter weeks planning to allow more students in classrooms by reducing COVID–19 distancing rules from six to three feet. Many even ordered custom barriers they believed would be necessary to do it safely.

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in March that allowed three feet of distancing in classrooms without barriers, in certain circumstances, many administrators felt vindicated — and then went scrambling to find the receipts for their plexiglass.

When the state Department of Health issued its own revised guidelines in April to conform with the federal changes, NYSUT spoke out to clarify that safe reopening is about much more than a tape measure.

The state “is making it crystal clear that distancing is only one part of a layered mitigation strategy,” said President Andy Pallotta.

The revised guidelines draw detailed distinctions between when it’s appropriate to have three feet of distancing and when six feet is still necessary. They also mandate masks at all times and lay out specific ventilation recommendations, and they maintain provisions for cleaning, hygiene and contact tracing.

The guidelines also say community transmission — with a majority of New York counties currently at high levels of transmission, per CDC metrics — is a critical factor in how physical distancing changes are implemented.

Most importantly, before districts make changes, they must give parents and educators opportunities to provide input on reopening plans.

“That has always been and must continue to be essential to the reopening process,” Pallotta said.

NYSUT maintains that more must be done to strengthen safety protocols.

The state recommends that districts “strongly consider” implementing screening testing, but the union insists there is zero excuse for all districts not to implement routine testing as soon as possible.

“The federal government is making hundreds of millions of dollars available to New York schools explicitly for this purpose,” Pallotta said. “It’s long past time to get this done.”

NYSUT members, as much as anyone in school communities all over New York state, long for a day when they can return to buildings with all of their students.

“What we’ve wanted from the very beginning of the school reopening process is for that to happen in the safest possible environment,” Pallotta said.