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Need clear rules to open schools

Need clear rules to open schools 1

Over the next month, nearly all of Long Island’s schoolchildren are scheduled to return to classrooms. Many ages 12 and over and all of those 11 and under will be unvaccinated, as will some teachers. That’s a problem.

Hospital leaders nationwide report that the current delta variant-fueled surge is infecting more children than past variants, and more severely. Pediatric hospitals elsewhere — not here yet, and hopefully never — are slowly filling with young ones.

How schools ought to deal with reopening is a complicated question that school boards and superintendents harangued by parents are ill-positioned to answer. And it is already political.

In a statement Friday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran wrote, “I firmly believe that the decision for masks and other public health protocols in our schools and facilities is best left in the hands of the individual school districts who know their students, faculty, parents and communities best.”

She’s wrong. With deadly viruses, knowing about transmissibility and public health is what counts. COVID-19 doesn’t bow to the wondrous uniqueness of your students, faculties and parents.

The state Department of Health, having promised guidelines on reopening, punted last week. Saying it no longer has emergency authority to issue rules, it advised districts to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that say everyone indoors in schools in areas of high transmission, which is all of Long Island, should mask.

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The ideal fix is the State Legislature authorizing the Department of Health to demand vaccination or frequent testing of teachers, and masking for all, when COVID positivity is above a certain percentage in a region.

But that would take courage.

Next best would be the Department of Health giving districts more cover by issuing the CDC guidelines as firm recommendations, on state letterhead. Instead, the state handed the issue to counties, which seem to have no power here beyond the bully pulpit, and the districts.

The arguments of parents who strongly oppose mask requirements are not persuasive. Educators are nearly unanimous in saying students don’t have an issue with masks. And “why does my kid have to wear one for protection if yours already does” is silly. There is far more protection when both the infected person and the healthy contact are masked.

Some states are already back in school and what happens there must be closely monitored. Those Island districts that return to class first will be good indicators of best practices.

But barring a huge reduction in cases, school districts need to do the right thing and demand masks for all and vaccination or tests for teachers, and eventually, students. And the CDC, state Department of Health, and county health departments and executives need to do everything possible to back school districts up, so a fight over masks doesn’t overtake the need to protect and educate children.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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