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Mendoza Sets Record Straight on School Reopenings

By Tyronda James

Dr. Michael Mendoza, Department of Public Health commissioner, provides clarity on the reopening of schools.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, says that he has no authority on the reopening or closing of schools.

‘Who’s in charge?’ was the question sought at a special meeting of legislative committees on Monroe County school re-openings held Feb. 22. 

Mendoza said when the regional statement was issued, it was essentially copied from state guidelines.  Then it was up to the schools to develop their own plan. And they developed their school reopening plan and submitted it to the State Department of Health, who then had the authority to approve or not at that plan. 

“I think there’s a lot of confusion around this. I do not have any role whatsoever in approving or not approving any of those plans. I have not read a single one of those plans,” Mendoza said. “But ultimately our job was to inform the school superintendents and school districts, and it was up to them as to how, or in what ways they wanted to adopt the guidelines.

For weeks, the Monroe County Legislature has been seeking answers on who is in charge of approving school re-opening and when families and students can resume full in-person learning. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved in-person learning and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed for five days a week in-person learning with local governments. Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Mendoza continue to allege the state is responsible for making the final determination on this. 

Regarding masks and social distancing, Mendoza said based coverings are recommended at all times, but required whenever individuals cannot maintain six foot distance.”

Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew and Legislator Paul Dondorfer sent a letter to Human Services Chairwoman Jackie Smith and Recreation & Education Chairman Frank X. Allkofer earlier in February, requesting a Special Joint Meeting of the two committees. 

The need was to hear from Dr. Mendoza and gather information on current status, restrictions and re-opening of Monroe County’s schools.

“We are happy to hear that Governor Cuomo and the CDC are in agreement that full, in-person learning may resume,” said Smith. “We are continuing to seek answers on who has the authority to reopen schools and how districts can safely have students return full time.”

Dondorfer said there is a lack of accountability in determining the path forward for students returning to school on a full-time basis.

“Students are falling behind academically and the lack of social interaction is impacting their mental health,” he said. “There must be an open and honest conversation about the path forward for reopening public schools fully; our students are depending on it.”

Legislators Tracy DiFlorio and George J. Hebert, both members of the Human Services Committee said dozens of families are reaching out on the issue and no doubt voicing the concerns of many others in the community.

“We recognize the need to keep students, teachers and staff safe, however if there are accommodations that can be made to re-open schools safely and fully, these options must be explored.”

Mendoza said schools can safely reopen in the county if the number of COVID-19 cases decrease and the positivity rate stays low. He said they’ve always looked for ways to re-open, while doing so safely.