At this time two years ago, schools were stocking up on masks and cleaning supplies, moving classroom desks around for social distancing, and readying thermometers for temperature taking each day — all parts of reopening plans that outlined how they would operate while Covid-19 was still running rampant.
But as the presence of the virus waned and vaccines became more readily available, school looked a little more normal each week, and the coming school year continues that trend. New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday updated the official Covid-19 policies for schools, aligning the state with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control. Notable among the changes is a relaxing of quarantine rules and testing requirements.
"We know there's no replacement for in-classroom learning, and we're going to make sure that this year is a very different year," Governor Hochul said during a press conference.
The updated recommendations can be found on the state website at on.ny.gov/3PKL8SX. They include eliminating a 10-day quarantine for students who are exposed to the virus. If exposure occurs, the state now suggests wearing "a well-fitting mask or respirator" for 10 days and taking a Covid test at least five days after the exposure, or sooner if symptoms develop. Those who test positive will be subject to a five-day isolation period and then five more days of masking.
The governor also announced a new, optional "test-based strategy" for reducing the length of time a person needs to isolate. Testing to return to school after exposure isn't required anymore. The isolation period can end after day five if that person has been symptom-free all along; if there were indeed symptoms, isolation can still end after five days when the person has been fever-free, without the use of fever-reducing medications, for 24 hours. "People should wear a mask through day 10 after ending isolation when they are feeling better," the state says.
The state guidance also gives administrators "the discretion to require that a recently symptomatic school community member not enter the school facility for a period of five days from the onset of symptoms if they cannot present evidence of a negative test."
All health agencies continue to say that infected people should stay home when sick and should get tested. They also continue to stress vaccines as a critical tool for mitigation; anyone 6 months and older is now eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine and those 5 and up can receive boosters. The start of the coming school year also has Governor Hochul relaunching the #VaxToSchool campaign, setting up more than 30 pop-up youth vaccine clinics in communities across the state, though there were none listed on Long Island as of Tuesday morning. Vaccines and boosters are now readily available at pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens.
School officials here said they are busy studying up on the new guidance and that it will be discussed at upcoming school board meetings. Some were pleased to have more than just a couple of days' notice, as had been the case in the past.
"I welcome the relaxed protocols, but, at the same time, I hope that any new variants which emerge will be less aggressive than the originals. We will keep watching," Jack Perna, the Montauk School District superintendent, said in an email this week.
His Springs School District counterpart, Debra Winter, also welcomed the changes -- especially since they included dropping a weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated staff members. "The new guidance is definitely good news for the opening of school," she said, though she acknowledged that there's no way to "fully anticipate that there will be no interruptions to instruction."
At Springs, kids in sixth through eighth grades will be changing classes again as was the practice before the pandemic. "Our students will be able to see more of their friends throughout the school day," Ms. Winter said.
East Hampton's superintendent, Adam Fine, said by email that he is "happy that New York State sent their new Covid guidelines two weeks before the start of school." In the past, as previously reported in The Star, state health guidelines often came to schools with just a couple of days' notice. "As I review the guidelines with our medical staff, I do think we will be in for an excellent opening and school year," Mr. Fine said.
Jay Finello, the Sagaponack School superintendent and principal, also said it's a welcome change.
"We appreciate the effort from Governor Hochul, Commissioner Betty Rosa, and Dr. Mary Bassett to ensure that students return to school for in-school learning," he said. "The new guidance will allow for students, teachers, and staff to return to their classrooms without masking and social distancing. At Sagaponack, we're going to continue taking daily temperatures and ensuring that students and staff are not in school when they are feeling ill. We believe this is a good health practice to help monitor for all illnesses."
On Tuesday, Governor Hochul released the state's latest Covid-19 data, based on reporting from Monday. Long Island's seven-day average case count was 26.75 cases per 100,000 residents, with Suffolk County only reporting a seven-day average of 26 cases per 100,000 residents. Since March 2020, there have been 499,687 unique positive cases, with a reinfection rate of 7.5 cases per 100,000 people as of Aug. 16. There have been 4,544 Covid-19 fatalities since the onset of the pandemic in Suffolk, and 77.2 percent of county residents have been fully vaccinated.