Hochul adopts relaxed COVID-19 school rules as emergency wanes

ALBANY – Students will no longer need to “test to stay” in the classroom when there is exposure to COVID-19 as state officials seek to keep schools fully open amid concerns declines in community spread of the virus.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday the state will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently updated coronavirus guidelines for schools that are beginning to resume classes.

“We now have two years of experience to know that children are safe in classrooms,” Hochul told a news conference in New York.

The policy shift not only reflects federal directions but also comes as Hochul, in the midst of an election for a full term as governor, continues to face regular criticism from Republicans. Critics say she proposed draconian restrictions on students and unnecessarily prolonged the coronavirus state of emergency.

His gubernatorial opponent, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, R-Long Island, criticized the state’s current state of emergency. In a campaign statement last week, he said Hochul’s “craving for more power and control is the disease New Yorkers should be most concerned about.”

On Monday, Hochul said the COVID-19 emergency declaration could end next month. This allowed state agencies to bypass contract procurement processes to quickly purchase items like coronavirus tests without having to go through a public bidding process. Hochul has come under fire for the administration’s COVID-related contracts with businesspeople donating to her campaign.

Hochul said the state followed typical procurement strategies following the resurgence of COVID-19 that began last fall. She said the need for the emergency order was to allow certain health care providers to administer vaccines in schools.

“It could end soon,” Hochul said.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt quickly responded to Hochul’s remarks.

“Today’s announcement is a long-awaited victory for New York parents and students,” Ortt said in a statement. “I am pleased that the governor has finally answered my call to drop COVID restrictions in schools. I am now asking him to drop all restrictions and end the emergency today.”

The new guidelines in the classroom include no longer requiring anyone to wear a mask, regardless of their vaccination status. If exposed to COVID-19, a student must wear a mask for 10 days in indoor public places, including schools. Previously, one student testing positive would have resulted in all unvaccinated students in an exposed classroom being sent home and quarantined.

A person who exhibits symptoms of COVID “should be sent home,” according to guidelines released by state officials Monday afternoon. They must then self-isolate at home for five days.

School officials have the “discretion” to require the five-day isolation period, but it is not state-enforced. A student can then return to school, with symptoms, if they have not had a fever for 24 hours and their symptoms improve; they should then wear a mask for the next five days – for a total of 10 days since the onset of symptoms.

Masks will still be recommended, but not required, when a school is in a high-transmission community, as defined by the CDC. School officials are advised to consult with their local health department and legal counsel to find out if they can impose mask mandates.

Students on school buses will not be required to wear a mask, but those on public transport, on the way to school, will always have to wear a mask.

Unvaccinated staff no longer need to be tested weekly.

Hochul hopes the updated approach, as outlined by the CDC, will lead to better educational, social and mental health outcomes for students while limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

“Because we know there is no replacement with classroom learning,” Hochul said.

The governor acknowledged that the past year was “stressful” and “confusing” for parents as they tried to navigate the many COVID-19 rules in place. Last year’s rules for schools were outlined by Hochul during his first days in office after taking over from former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo following his resignation.

This year, Hochul is adopting rules in line with federal authorities for a more relaxed approach to COVID-19 testing in schools.

The state has stockpiled 14.5 million test kits and recently purchased 6 million more, which some Hochul said they plan to distribute to students to ease parental anxiety as school is set to resume in most districts early next month.

Martha K. Merrill