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State tells schools to look to CDC and local health departments for Covid guidance

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Hamburg High School Dismissal (copy)
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Schools should follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials for their in-person instructional plans for this fall, said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.

"With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools," Zucker said in a statement Thursday. "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."

His recommendation pleased local school officials. 

"I'm happy with this decision, this is what I've been asking for," said Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie. "The best decisions are going to come from those who know it best."

"School superintendents individually and in groups have been asking the New York State Department of Health for fall guidance since the spring, and it never came," Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Wednesday the county expected guidance from the state, and State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa said last week the department was waiting for the state Health Department guidelines. Rosa recommended schools use CDC guidance in planning for opening schools.

Rosa chided the Health Department Thursday, sending a letter to Zucker asking him to consider the department's "statutory responsibilities as the state agency devoted to protecting the public health." She said there is an urgent need for timely advice and supervision from the Health Department to local officials.

"The circumstances enveloping the executive chamber this week should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the governor’s office for months," Rosa said in a statement, referring to the state attorney general's report accusing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of sexual harassment.

The Erie County Health Department told school leaders Thursday it would issue guidance as soon as possible.

"Our office of epidemiology and school team are reviewing existing school guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with lessons that our department has learned throughout this pandemic," the county Health Department said in a message to superintendents and school leaders. "We understand the extreme time constraints under which you and your colleagues are working, and we will share our next steps with this group as soon as we can." 

"We do know for sure, I think every school district across the state is planning on being in person five days a week for all children," said Cornell, who also is president of the Erie Niagara School Superintendents Association.

The CDC recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Cornell and Laurrie said there have been no cases of Covid-19 in Hamburg and Niagara Falls summer school programs this year. Cornell said there were very few cases of infection in school-sponsored programs this summer.

"That experience offers us real-time data," Cornell said.

Laurrie said he plans to follow the protocols the Niagara Falls City School District had this summer, which strongly recommended but did not mandate wearing masks. Cleaning protocols will continue, and contingency plans will be made.

"Unfortunately, if we have an outbreak, we may have to mask everybody," Laurrie said. But, he added, "it should be based on what is happening."

Niagara Falls is working on a protocol to offer Covid-19 testing for students and staff in the district who may want them. Cornell said Erie County school districts are working with the Erie County Health Department on creating a surveillance testing program, should that be necessary.

Cornell said his goal in June was to have this September's school look like September 2019.

"I think it's wise to let some time pass here and see what happens over the next two to three weeks," Cornell said. "The virus is unpredictable."

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