NYS Dept. of Health: No state guidelines for school reopening

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The news comes as a surprise, but it is what school superintendents and county health commissioners want – a level of control over how schools open and operate this year.

Despite an assurance that it was working on rules and guidance as recently as Tuesday, the New York State Department of Health (DOH) decided it is not going to issue any rules or guidance on re-opening schools.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the New York State Education Department blamed the state Department of Health’s decision on the governor’s sexual harassment scandal.

State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement schools are the "controlling entity" and they should follow "guidance from the CDC and local health departments."

The CDC guidance says everyone in a school should wear a mask, keep three feet apart, and have a testing system if you can’t distance. The governor’s office shared the decision with education groups like the state PTA Wednesday night.

Berkeley Brean, chief investigative reporter: "What did they tell you exactly, the governor’s office?"
Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of NYS PTA: "Just very simply, at this time, they were not going to be issuing specific reopening guidance."

Bo Wright, the president of the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents and the superintendent of the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, says the decision "comes as a complete surprise."

"Now, with only four weeks left before the first day of school, districts will continue the conversation about how best to approach reopening," Wright said.

The state education department brought up the governor’s sexual harassment scandal today when it ripped the health department saying, "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."

Schools and Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Michael Mendoza have always wanted some local control. Here’s what Mendoza told News10NBC on Monday.

Mendoza: "To some degree, we’ve always wanted a little bit more flexibility at the local level and so I’ve been talking to the superintendents and schools about that very possibility and the reality is if it never comes to be, we’ve done all this planning for no reason, but I’d rather be in that position than be unprepared."

While the governor’s office shared the decision with education groups, it did not share information with state lawmakers on the health committees like Assemblyman Josh Jensen from Greece.

Brean: "Did you get any heads up that the health department is not going to issue any guidance for schools this year?"

Jensen, (R) NYS Assembly Health Committee: "No, unfortunately, I didn’t Berkeley, and that’s been par for the course in my six months in office."

Jensen is frustrated with the communication, but he likes the decision.

"So, letting our school district leadership, letting our teachers, letting our parents have a say in the daily education environment for our students, I think is the best course of action," Jensen said.

Among the CDC guidelines is social distancing in schools of three feet. Dr. Emil Lesho, the head of infectious disease at Rochester Regional Health, weighed in.

"I think the old three feet, now that Delta is on the scene, I’m not sure three feet is enough, but it’s the best some districts can do," Lesho said. "But everyone can wear a mask. That’s an easy mitigation step and I would encourage that."