COVID-19 Update – Report Questions NY Response, School Board Elections “Herculean” Effort

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties co-produced with The River Newsroom. The following is for Friday, May 22.

LOCAL DIVE

School districts across the nation are coping with the unprecedented challenge of teaching remotely. All over New York State this week, public schools are grappling with another logistical nightmare on top of remote teaching and staff social distancing: Holding school board and budget elections by mail.

The elections were originally slated for Tuesday, May 19. But on May 1, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order postponing school elections until June 9, when they would be conducted by mail, and requiring districts to mail a ballot to every eligible voter. For districts already stretched to their limits, threatened with the prospect of deep cuts to state funding, and facing an uncertain future, the election mandate was a lot to tackle.

Reached by phone on Wednesday evening, Onteora Central School District superintendent Victoria McLaren, whose district serves a population of 45,000 living in six Ulster County towns, said Onteora will get the job done, but it’s been an incredible challenge.

“This is an incredibly concentrated effort,” McLaren said. “It is a huge undertaking that we have never been required to do before.”

In an ordinary year, McLaren said, the school board and budget election draws between 800 and 1,000 Onteora voters to the polls. Each year, the district mails a newsletter about the upcoming election to every household in the district to keep them informed on issues and candidates. But this year it’s different: Along with that newsletter, every individual voter needs to receive a printed ballot stuffed inside a postage-paid return envelope. With about 12,000 eligible voters in the district, the task of printing, assembling, and funding postage for all of that material has required a monumental effort on the part of staff, McLaren said.

“We rushed through Herculean efforts on the part of our district clerk to get our ballots and all the accompanying envelopes ordered, printed, and distributed to us,” she said. “We will be stuffing them for the next couple days, and they will be mailed out toward the middle of next week.” Staffers coming in to help stuff the envelopes must keep six-foot distances from each other.

The state mandate caught McLaren by surprise. While she expected some disruption in the school election process, McLaren said she thought the state might allow districts that do not exceed the state’s tax levy cap to adopt their budgets without a general election. Even if the budget passes without a hitch, she said, there is massive uncertainty for all districts because of likely cuts to state aid that the district cannot calculate.

“It’s very difficult to adopt a budget when you hear repeatedly from our government that there will be reductions in school funding. We have not received actual numbers,” she said. The district is moving forward with the plans it has made over the past several months. Onteora will hold a budget hearing on Tuesday, May 26 at 6pm, after which the ballots will go to voters. “The state might not fund us to that level [that the school board has been working with], and they’ve said it’s highly likely they won’t, but they’ve given us nothing further. It feels incredibly challenging and unfair,” McLaren said.

By law, every district must get ballots in every voter’s hands by a week before the June 9 election. Onteora is on track to make that deadline with room to spare, McLaren said. But every district across the state is in the same boat: tasked with an expensive, unfunded mandate on a tight deadline, at a time when even the ordinary work of teaching students has become almost impossible.

“I think it’s incredible what all districts have been able to do, ours included. Our staff has absolutely shown that they are so skilled and so dedicated to our students and the community at large. But I don’t think this is the paradigm that anyone prefers for education,” she said.

NEW YORK STATE

356,458 cases confirmed (2,088 new)
1,555,055 tests performed (49,219 new)
23,083 deaths (107 new)
76,608 hospitalizations (overall)
5,187 hospitalizations (current)
1,695 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

In the face of mounting evidence that early March official dithering in New York State has cost lives—about 36,000 of them, according to a damning new report out of Columbia University—both Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio are pointing fingers elsewhere. In a Thursday report, Politico was blunt: “Even when de Blasio and Cuomo were working off the same information, they struggled to coordinate a coherent response,” the outlet writes. “The mayor and governor delayed closing schools and nearly 80 city school employees have now died. De Blasio warned a shelter-in-place order would be needed after a lockdown was ordered in San Francisco and was derided by the governor, who said such orders cause unnecessary panic. Cuomo instituted one on March 22, albeit with a different name.”

Announced by New York State on Thursday:

  • Summer school will be held remotely in New York State this year. By early June, the state will issue guidelines about how schools and colleges should handle education in the fall.
  • The sales tax deadline has been extended until June 22, 2020.
  • The number of children in New York State who have suffered from a rare inflammatory syndrome linked to COVID-19, dubbed “multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children” or MIS-C, has risen to 157. Three children have died of the syndrome.
  • New Yorkers who believe their employers are not following state guidelines on workplace safety, PPE, or social distancing are encouraged to call the state hotline: 1-888-364-3065.
  • New Yorkers should be on the lookout for calls from “NYS Contact Tracing,” and be sure to answer them, Cuomo said in Thursday’s briefing. “You should answer that call. It’s not a hoax, it’s not a scam, it’s not a fraud. That is an official message saying New York State contact tracing is calling, so if you get that message, take that phone call,” he said.

Rate of active cases per 10,000 residents, drawn from the latest county data. Active case data unavailable for Rockland and Orange counties.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

After counting just one coronavirus-related fatality between Monday and Wednesday, Rockland County documented three deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing its total to 615. But hospitalizations have held steady, and Governor Cuomo announced in his daily briefing on Thursday that elective surgeries and ambulatory care can resume in the county.

David Hardy, who is alleged to have fatally shot 13-year-old Shamoya McKenzie in Mount Vernon on New Year’s Eve, 2016, is seeking temporary release from prison while he awaits trial because of fears that his asthma puts him at greater risk if he contracts COVID-19 behind bars. McKenzie was hit by a stray bullet during a gang shootout. Hardy was arrested two weeks later, allegedly telling officers that he was sorry for his actions. He has been held without bond since being indicted shortly thereafter.

County Town of Putnam Valley supervisor Sam Oliverio among those fed up with Governor Cuomo. At a news conference on Tuesday, Oliverio expressed outrage at last week’s announcement of a multistate agreement with New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware to reopen beaches for Memorial Day Weekend. “Governor Cuomo is making me nuts,” he said. Go off!

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Columbia County health officials and a local nursing home have been at odds over COVID-19 testing policy at the facility, and on Thursday the parties traded claims and counterclaims in a Register-Star article. The county wants Ghent Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, formerly known as Whittier, to proactively test all residents in conjunction with the county Department of Health (DOH), as other nursing homes in the county have done, while the facility only administers the test by request of a resident or their family. DOH director Jack Mabb told the newspaper employees at Whittier had tested positive; administrator Frank K. Yeboah said no employees or residents had tested positive. Forty-five residents who want tests will receive them using a portion of the 120 kits requested and received from the DOH on May 15, according to Yeboah, though it was not immediately clear if the residents had just requested the tests, or if this represented a backlog of requests. The majority of residents’ families wanted them tested “under no circumstances,” Yeborah said.

SUNY New Paltz is proceeding under the assumption it will hold in-person classes this fall, though the state has yet to make a determination. The university has submitted draft plans to SUNY central administration laying out how it would open, and the college board voted in new language in the student handbook about social distancing. University president Donald Christian has said the arbiter of whether the campus opens is the state.

The case of ClubLife Fitness in northern Columbia County, which reopened last week and was later served a cease-and-desist letter, will be handled in Kinderhook Town Court after the letter did not sway the owner. “I didn’t want to put my code enforcer through any more,” Kinderhook town supervisor Patsy Leader said. The cease-and-desist letter was served with deputies from the Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of enforcing New York State on PAUSE business closures in the county.

The City of Hudson saw a 23 percent drop in sales tax revenue in March, though business closures did not happen until the second half of the month, according to Hudson treasurer Heather Campbell, who released a report about how the rest of the year’s finances in the city might play out. The tourism-heavy city, which receives 55 percent of its revenue from sources other than property taxes, could see revenue decline 10-15 percent in a low-impact scenario and up to 23 percent in a high-impact scenario. These estimates assume a return to normalcy by the end of the year, with revenues above average in November and December. The city’s fund balance was already lower than the city’s policy allows, and it will most likely be dug into to fill the budget gap. Mayor Kamal Johnson told department heads to cut their budgets between five and 10 percent.

Poughkeepsie’s Quiet Cove Riverfront Park will open this Saturday, though only 50 people will be allowed into the riverfront area at a time. The county is setting up grills and picnic tables at Quiet Cove as well as Bowdoin Park and Wilcox Park and socially distant picnicking is encouraged.

Two Hudson organizations launched a public safety campaign on Thursday with the Mayor’s Office to help choke off the spread of the coronavirus. “Hudson Safe” will use signage with positive messaging encouraging social distancing. “Do Your Part. Wear a Mask. Stay 6 Feet Apart,” one signs reads. The two organizations, FUTURE HUDSON and BEST Creative Studio, used funding from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s Columbia County Emergency Fund for printing costs. Hudson had 32 cumulative COVID-19 cases as of last Friday, according to the Columbia County Department of Health.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Delaware County reported three new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, an uptick for a tiny rural county that has not seen a new case since Sunday, May 17. The three new cases in Delaware follow a day after three new cases were confirmed in Schoharie County, where the known infection rate has been even lower. Both counties are in regions that entered Phase One of reopening on May 15: Delaware in the Southern Tier, and Schoharie in the Mohawk Valley.

The Schoharie County Board of Supervisors is considering passing a local law holding businesses responsible for ensuring that workers and customers wear masks, and enforcing it, the Times-Journal reports. The proposed legislation has the support of county public health director Amy Gildemeister. “Local Stewart’s Shops do have signs on their front doors asking customers to wear masks or face coverings, but especially mornings, compliance looks to be less than 50 percent,” the paper reports.

The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is looking into threats made against local Orthodox Jewish summer camps and bungalow colonies that have been shared on Facebook, the Times Herald-Record reports. “At this point the comments appear casual and do not indicate any imminent threat,” undersheriff Eric Chaboty told the paper.

Greene County experienced the lowest job losses in the entire state in April, according to figures released by the state Department of Labor Thursday. The number of jobs fell by 7.9 percent when compared to April 2019. The state as a whole had 19.4 percent fewer jobs than last year.

OF INTEREST?

The River and The Other Hudson Valley are collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

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