Swinehart task force

Vickie Swinehart, Seneca County’s director of public health, speaks at a press conference Thursday on the new Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Task Force.

ROCHESTER — The public health directors for Seneca and Wayne counties are on a regional task force to support the unprecedented process of reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic.

“Finding common ground on how to reopen schools is essential,” Vickie Swinehart of Seneca County said at a press conference Thursday to announce the Finger Lakes Reopening Schools Safely Task Force. “The task force will help us share resources across districts, avoid duplication of efforts and prevent confusion.”

Along with parent representatives, the task force brings together 40-plus leaders from public health, health care, education, government and nonprofits. The group will provide a forum for candid discussion and ensure local decisions are guided by the latest scientific findings about COVID-19.

Convened by Common Ground Health, formerly the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, the task force covers 13 counties including Allegany, Chemung, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates.

“Our children’s next year will be shaped by the choices we make in the coming weeks,” said Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health. “By pooling the resources and collective wisdom of our entire region, we are committing ourselves to an extraordinary effort on behalf of our students. During this crisis, they deserve no less.”

The task force is committed to equity for all students, including those who live in poverty, lack internet access or have special needs. Other area representatives on the task force are Diane Devlin, director of Wayne County Public Health, and Ontario County parent Jessica Spence of Clifton Springs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our community together in ways we never expected,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, who is on the task force. “As school districts throughout Monroe County and the Finger Lakes region begin to release their reopening plans, our top concern remains the health, safety and well-being of students, teachers, staff and families. From our public health and health care professionals to local government and school district officials, we are all working together to ensure the public health of our community remains at the forefront.”

Although details of reopening plans will remain the responsibility of individual school districts and will vary depending on local conditions, the task force will identify common challenges and share best practices among its members.

Recognizing that reopening is a long-term process, not a single-day event, the task force will provide an ongoing forum for handling the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, which can change rapidly as the surge in cases in other states is proving.

The multi-sector group can also serve as a unified voice when the region needs to advocate for resources or regulatory changes.

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