Cuomo, schools spar on reopening plans
According to the governor, 107 NY school districts, including Victor, fail to submit COVID-19 reopening plans. Or did they?
ALBANY — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to prohibit 107 school districts — including Victor, Bloomfield, Geneva, Palmyra-Macedon and Webster — from opening their doors this fall if they do not submit a COVID-19 reopening plan to the state by Friday, two weeks after the original deadline.
There was just one problem: Dozens of the districts on the list already did submit their plans — or so they thought.
Cuomo's public shaming Monday morning sent school leaders across the state scrambling after they saw their districts named on the delinquent list, despite many of those districts believing they had previously submitted their plans through the state's online portal.
By Monday afternoon, it became clear there was widespread confusion about the state's submission process.
Some districts believed their plans were sent to the state Department of Health when in actuality they were sent to Empire State Development, which is overseeing businesses. Others apparently submitted their plans directly to the state Education Department rather than using a form that included the Department of Health.
And others were at a total loss, claiming they correctly submitted their plans to the Health Department and ended up on the list anyway.
"I'm really surprised that they published it so quickly before they got some of his stuff untangled, because obviously it makes school districts look like you know we're slow on the uptake in complying with all this, which is certainly not the case in Nyack," said James Montesano, superintendent of the Nyack school system in Rockland County.
Schools need plans to reopen
New York is allowing schools to reopen to in-person learning in September after switching to an online model in April amid the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak, which hammered New York worse than any other state in the early days of the pandemic.
But each district was required to craft a reopening plan by July 31 that laid out the various health and safety protocols meant to slow the spread of the virus once children return to the classroom. Those plans must be approved by the Health Department.
The confusion came to a head Monday morning, when Cuomo held a conference call with members of the media.
On the call, Cuomo fumed that more than 100 of the state's roughly 700 school districts had not submitted their reopening plans by the original deadline. So he issued an ultimatum: The delinquent schools had until Friday to submit their plans or else they would not be permitted to reopen for in-person learning at all this year.
"For those 107 school districts, how you didn't submit a plan is beyond me," Cuomo said. "But they didn't submit a plan to DOH or SED. If they don't submit a plan by this Friday, they can't open."
List spurs confusion
Within an hour of his call, Cuomo's press office released a list of the 107 districts the administration considered delinquent. That's when superintendents across the state saw their districts listed despite believing they had already submitted their plans and met the state's requirements.
Dozens of districts said they had submitted their plans on July 31 and still ended up on the list. Their fully formed plans could be found on many of their school websites.
Among them were Webster and Victor schools in the Rochester area, as well as Oriskany, Utica, Richfield Springs, Owen D. Young, Central Valley and Waterville in the Mohawk Valley; Bedford, Nyack, Hendrick Hudson, Beacon and Garrison in the Hudson Valley; and Spencer Van Etten, Newark Valley, Corning, Elmira and Odessa-Montour in the Southern Tier.
Timothy Terranova, superintendent of Victor Central Schools, said he submitted the school system's plan on July 31 as required.
"I called the state and they said they are getting swamped by districts in the same situation," he wrote in an email. "Not sure if it was a glitch on the state's part or the health department had another form somewhere that wasn't kept track of by the state."
It was a similar story for the Odessa-Montour Central School District in Schuyler County.
“The problem is not on our side," Superintendent Christopher Wood said. "We submitted everything on July 31 and uploaded it to our website on the same day. It must be a mistake on their end.”
At least two school districts appeared to have submitted plans through the state's online portal for businesses rather than school districts. It was unclear how many others did the same.
When they finished the process, those districts received a confirmation page titled "Business Affirmation." It meant the plan was sent to Empire State Development instead of the Department of Health, which is overseeing the school safety plans.
"That’s the ESD Business reopening portal (a dead giveaway is that it identifies businesses and business owners)," Cuomo senior adviser and spokesman Rich Azzopardi tweeted when a reporter posted a screen grab of the Shenendehowa school system's confirmation.
Submission directions were deep within NY guidance
Cuomo's administration laid out the requirements for the reopening plans in a 23-page document posted to its website.
The document offered guidance and laid out rules for schools hoping to open their doors in the fall, setting strict standards for social distancing, sanitizing and mask-wearing.
Directions for schools to submit their plans to the state came on page 22 of the document. Each district was required to follow a link on the page to submit a form affirming they had read the state's guidance. The reopening plan was to be attached to that form.
In a statement, Azzopardi called the list of 107 delinquent districts "accurate," placing the blame with school districts he said didn't follow the submission directions.
"Despite clear guidance provided to these schools, which included a link to the DOH portal, some districts in follow-up calls said they filed with the State Education Department — which is not an executive agency — but didn't file with DOH," he said.
"Others filled out an affirmation certifying that they would be abiding by the state's reopening guidance, but didn't actually submit their plan, something many of these districts are now rectifying."
One district acknowledges 'oversight'
While many districts felt they were inaccurately included on the delinquent list, others realized they had missed a step in the submission process.
That was the case for the Arkport Central School District in Steuben County, which acknowledged making an "oversight."
The district sent its plan to the Education Department, which is overseeing academic portions, and not the Health Department, which oversees safety protocols, according to Superintendent Jesse Harper.
"Once it was brought to our attention that an additional step was needed, we were in contact with NYSDOH," Harper said in a statement.. "Earlier this afternoon, we received a confirmation letter from NYSDOH stating that our plan was successfully submitted."
Includes reporting by The Journal News staff writer Sophie Grosserode, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle staff writer Justin Murphy, Times Telegram staff writer Stephanie Sorrell-White, The Spectator regional editor Chris Potter, Observer-Dispatch staff writer H. Rose Schneider, Press & Sun-Bulletin staff writer Maggie Gilroy and Star-Gazette staff writer Jeff Murray