New York State Department of Health releases official COVID-19 guidance for schools

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The New York State Department of Health released new requirements and guidance Thursday as students and teachers in the Rochester area return to school.

The guidance outlines requirements for all teachers, administrators, and other school employees to have COVID-19 testing performed at least once a week when a school is in an area identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having "low, moderate, substantial, or high transmission rates."

Teachers and other school staff can opt-out of the mandatory testing if they show proof of vaccination, with either a CDC vaccine card or the Excelsior Pass.

The New York State Department of Health also finalized and released official guidance for classroom instruction on Thursday. In addition to a universal masking requirement for everyone in school buildings during instructional hours and extracurricular activities, face masks must be worn by passengers and drivers on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

The New York State Department of Health "strongly recommends" a physical distance of at least 3 feet between all students. The state also "recommends" at least 6 feet between students, teachers, and staff and between teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated.

School districts say they’ve started to get used to last-minute mandates.

“I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I just feel like sometimes there’s a disconnect between the state understanding all the other things that go into starting school and then adding mandates and requirements and things like that right at the same time, right before Labor Day weekend when people are trying to get that last breath before everybody comes back, but it is what it is and we’ll work through it,” Dr. Chris Brown, the superintendent of the Marcus Whitman School District tells News10NBC.

Most districts will get testing kits for unvaccinated staff and students who want to be tested with parental consent from their county health departments.

On Friday, Bo Wright, president of the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents released a statement saying:

"The New York State Department of Health announced that school districts will be required to test employees on a weekly basis. Those who are fully vaccinated will have the opportunity to opt-out of testing by providing proof of vaccination. This new requirement arrives late in the back-to-school process. We look forward to working with the state department of health. Moving forward, providing school districts with advanced notice and increased flexibility will help us experience a more productive school year. There is much to figure out regarding the new requirement and we will be focused on this in the days to come. The goal of local school districts has been – and continues to be – on preparing for the new school year. Our immediate priority is to make sure students have a successful return to the classroom."

School Guidance by News10NBC on Scribd

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Earlier this week, Gov. Kathy Hochul signaled this was coming when she spoke with News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke. On Thursday, Hochul announced the Public Health and Health Planning Council passed an emergency regulation, and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker issued the determination requiring weekly COVID-19 testing.

"We are now issuing guidance to make sure our school staff are vaccinated or tested regularly for themselves and their families, our students, and our communities," Hochul said in a statement Thursday. "Our children deserve to be safe and protected in schools, and I am doing everything in my power to guarantee that."

The emergency regulation, which authorizes Zucker to require weekly testing or proof of vaccine, will apply to all schools in New York state until it is no longer necessary, as described in the regulation.

"We need to get all of our children back in schools and in a safe environment which promotes healthy learning," Zucker said. "While we continue to work with local school districts and local health departments, we listened to feedback from parents, teachers and education advocates who asked for additional statewide guidance on masks, vaccines, social distancing and testing and for recommendations on challenges like school bus safety and navigating high-risk sports and extracurricular activities."

The official guidance also details recommendations and requirements for testing to monitor potential transmission.

Click here to read the New York State Department of Health’s official guidance for the 2021-22 school year.