New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order closing all schools in "hot zones" where cases of COVID-19 seem to be increasing is "a broad-brush approach that penalizes all schools, children and families needlessly," said the New York State Catholic Conference.
"We strongly urge that any action taken addresses actual problem schools where there is a sustained high rate of infection," the conference said in an Oct. 5 statement issued on behalf of the New York Archdiocese and the Brooklyn Diocese.
"The Catholic schools throughout our state and, particular in the densely populated New York City metropolitan area, have rightly been held up as a model for safety in these uncertain times," the statement said. "Our Catholic schools opened for full-time, in-person learning weeks before the New York City public schools and have had no significant COVID-19 outbreaks to date."
Based in Albany, the state capital, the conference is the public policy arm of New York state's Catholic bishops.
Reporting on Cuomo's Oct. 5 news conference at the Capitol, where he announced the closures, WXXI News said the governor has targeted certain ZIP codes.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, for example, this means the closure of St. Athanasius Catholic Academy, Our Lady of Grace, St. Edmund Elementary School and Good Shepherd Catholic Academy.
A diocesan spokesperson for the diocese told Catholic News Service Oct. 6 that the diocese only learned of the closures at Cuomo's news conference.
On Oct. 5, the Brooklyn Diocese implored Cuomo "to immediately reverse his decision and allow four schools that have been operating safely for weeks, within the COVID hot spot ZIP codes, to continue in-person learning."
"This decision by the governor clearly fails to take into account the positive progress our diocesan school system has made so far this school year," said Tom Chadzutko, Brooklyn's diocesan school superintendent.
"It is unconscionable to think that after the many sacrifices our staff, students, and parents have made, and in spite of our almost nonexistent infection rate, the governor has decided to force our four schools to close," he added. "The governor should delay the order related to our schools and visit each one before holding firm to his decision."
The diocese said all of its schools in Brooklyn and Queens require students to wear masks all day, "not just in class, but throughout the school building." Desks are set up 6 feet apart, and "hand and respiratory hygiene are promoted and enforced by teachers," it said.
All schools are cleaned on a daily basis using sanitizers and disinfectants approved by the Centers for Disease Control, the diocese said, "and high touch areas are cleaned several times a day."
In addition, there is signage throughout school buildings "promoting hygiene, illness, mask and distance requirements," it said. Schools conduct daily health screenings of all who enter the building as required by New York state.
"Procedures are in place if a positive COVID case is detected or suspected. We follow all mandates by city and state health officials on reporting, testing and tracing," the Brooklyn Diocese said, noting that its schools have passed all inspections by New York City health officials.
In its statement, the state Catholic conference said the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn "have invested millions of dollars and countless personnel hours to prepare for the return of students, and the results have been a remarkable success."
It cited media reports that have "praised our schools for our innovative social-distancing practices, strict adherence to masking and frequent hand-washing, and our continuous disinfecting of all public areas."
"We have shown the city, state and nation that with proper precautions, schools can safely reopen, whether in urban, suburban or rural areas, and can offer first-rate learning experiences even in the midst of a pandemic," it stated.
The Catholic Church has cooperated with state and city health protocols put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus -- such as mask wearing, social distancing hand-sanitizing, health screenings, thorough cleaning of schools and other facilities, the conference statement said.
"We have been strongly supportive of the state's efforts to protect our communities from the coronavirus, and we have been enthusiastic partners. We hope to continue that partnership for the good of all," it added.
Cuomo's closure of schools "absent any significant COVID-19 outbreaks because of inferior protocols at non-Catholic schools," the conference said, "would be a profound injustice to our families who have placed their trust in us to keep their children safe and whose faith has been richly rewarded to date."
WXXI News reported that Cuomo compared the hot spots he has identified to embers "in dry grass."
"The only course is to run to those embers and stamp them out immediately and dramatically,” he said, referring to news reports that some neighborhoods in New York City are seeing double the metro area's average infection rate of 1.72%.
The Brooklyn Diocese pointed out, however, that among its four schools in the targeted by ZIP codes, enrollment totals 1,070 students, "and there has only been one confirmed COVID case."
"These statistics prove that the diocesan COVID-19 safety policies are effectively protecting our students and teachers," it said.