New York schools will be allowed to reopen when the academic year begins in autumn, as the state that served as the pandemic’s early epicentre in the US declared a turning point in its fight to gain control over the coronavirus.
Andrew Cuomo, the state’s governor, said on Friday that all school districts aiming to reopen would need to set out specific plans for doing so, and facilitate at least three question-and-answer sessions for parents and teachers before August 21, in an effort to allay safety fears.
If schools and districts cannot make parents feel comfortable with the plans, parents can choose to not send their children back to school, he said.
Schools will be closed if the seven-day average infection rate in their region is higher than 9 per cent or higher. The infection rate in the state was 1 per cent on Friday, Mr Cuomo said.
“We have the best infection rate in the county,” Mr Cuomo said. “If any state can do it, this state can do it.”
Mr Cuomo’s announcement is a milestone for New York, which was hit hard by Covid-19 in the early days of the US outbreak. More than 25,000 people have died from the coronavirus in New York — by far the highest number of fatalities in any US state — although California, Florida and Texas have since surpassed it in terms of overall infections.
The announcement comes amid a fierce debate raging across the country over whether to open schools this autumn, and to what extent students and teachers should be present in classrooms while the virus is still spreading in many states.
There have been encouraging trends in pandemic data in recent weeks, particularly in the southern and western US, after a surge in cases earlier in the summer prompted some states to roll back their reopening plans.
California, Florida, Texas and Arizona were all hard-hit by the summer surge, but the increase in cases has been levelling off in recent days. The number of deaths, however, have remained stubbornly high in some of those states, including California, where fatalities now exceed 10,000.
President Donald Trump met with Doug Ducey, Arizona’s governor, earlier this week to laud the steps the state has taken — including reimposing some lockdown restrictions — to mitigate the sudden jump in infections that started earlier this summer.
But Mr Trump’s praise for Arizona drew criticism from Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in November’s presidential election who has frequently taken aim at the president’s handling of the pandemic.
Mr Biden on Friday said that Arizona was still suffering from high rates of infections, hospitalisations and deaths because Mr Ducey had rushed to reopen the state, withheld additional funds for testing and refused to make mask-wearing mandatory.
“The truth is that President Trump could have acted months ago to curb this pandemic — it’s obvious he still hasn’t learned his lesson,” Mr Biden tweeted. “He continues to ignore the warnings of health experts and we’re all paying the price.”
Mr Ducey shot back on Twitter: “The last thing we need is another politician rooting for the virus because it helps them politically. We’ve got enough of that. AZ has more work to do, but we are on the right track thanks to the actions and responsibility of our people. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”
Overall, 4.8m Americans have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, with more than 150,000 deaths, including 1,251 fatalities reported on Thursday, according to the Covid Tracking Project.