Who’s in charge? WNY education leaders talk school re-opening


(WIVB) — Who’s in charge? With schools set to open in just a few weeks, that is a question many school superintendents must be asking about health and safety guidelines. State health officials have been setting the rules, but they have suddenly dropped out.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has been setting all the health and safety guidelines for schools throughout the covid pandemic.. but when he pushed those responsibilities onto local officials, he set off a war of words with his counterpart at the Department of Education.

School officials, parents, and students have been waiting for guidance from the state health department for months on spacing, masking, and vaccinations. But now, with just weeks to go before those school bells ring.. the state emergency is over, and New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker is telling local school officials they are in charge of setting their own rules.. and recommended following the guidance of the CDC and local health departments.

That suits Niagara Falls superintendent Mark Laurrie just fine.

“We have proven if anything over the last 18 months, that we can adjust and make accommodations for the safety and health of everyone,” said Laurrie.

But it seemed to upset State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, who shot off a terse letter to Zucker reminding him that it is his job to control and supervise the abatement of nuisances affecting public health and there is no greater nuisance affecting public health and safety than COVID-19.

Zucker recommended the CDC and local health departments set the guidelines.

The Niagara County Health Director told us in a statement, their role is simply to provide guidance and support to the superintendents which have been working well.

Erie County’s Health Department says they are working on a plan which they will announce later, but how could that affect districts such as Hamburg where Superintendent Mike Cornell says they have been working on their plans for months?

“I have no expectation the county is going to approve our plans. They did not approve our plans last year either. Given that they did not approve our plans last year, I see no reason why they would approve our plans this year,” said Hamburg Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell.

County health departments are afforded a great deal of authority over health and safety issues, but the question is, now that the state health commissioner is no longer setting policy for schools, did he in effect pass that authority on to the counties?

Al Vaughters is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1994. See more of his work here. To submit a Call 4 Action, click here.

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