Dr. Kriner Cash, Superintendent
Buffalo Public Schools
712 City Hall
65 Niagara Square
Buffalo, NY 14202
WNY Students First is writing to urge you to stop misleading the Buffalo Public Schools community about the safety of schools and to stop downplaying the serious long-term damage that is being done to the health, education, and well-being of school-aged children in Buffalo as a result of prolonged school closures.
During the last Buffalo Public Schools Board meeting, you made reference to a study that showed that the prevalence of Covid-19 in students and school staff in Omaha, Nebraska was much higher than implied by testing. The results of this study are directionally in line with studies in other settings that show that Covid-19 cases have been much higher than previously known through testing.
The good news is that the data suggests that serious health complications and deaths per case are much lower than initially feared.
More importantly, the conclusion of the study was not that schools are unsafe. Indeed, prevalence does not equate to transmission. Studies, including those done by the CDC, have shown that transmission rates in schools are extremely low even when positivity rates in the community are high. Vaccinations help to protect school staff and masks help to limit the transmission of the virus. This is why schools are safe now.
The point of the study, however, was to show that testing at schools could provide an additional layer of protection to help schools reopen safely. Dr. Jana Broadhurst, the author of the study, noted that “what we have accomplished here is proof of principle that this can be carried out successfully in an urban school district, among an otherwise underserved population, and we can make an immediate impact on the safety of our schools through rapid case identification.”
If, by referencing this study, you were trying to make the point that Buffalo Public Schools could be reopened safely now by vaccinating school staff, wearing masks, and conducting rapid tests, that would make sense.
However, by suggesting that higher positivity rates in the community means that schools are unsafe is to ignore the well-established science behind Covid-19 transmission in schools, the effectiveness of masks, the vaccination of school staff, and the recommendations of the CDC and the NYSDOH.
When masks are used, schools are safe, especially now that teachers have been vaccinated. Your misinformation is needlessly creating fear and confusion in the community.
It is also extremely important for our school leaders to recognize the long-term consequences of prolonged school closures on the well-being of school-aged children, especially since schools will be tasked with undoing this damage over the next several years.
By stating that “our children are resilient” and that “they will catch up,” you are understating the severity of the educational gaps and mental health issues resulting from remote instruction. This reflects either a lack of compassion or a lack of understanding of the real problems now facing many children and families.
WNY Students First believes that families in all school districts should have the option to return to full in-person instruction 5 days per week. By not providing the essential service of education, Buffalo Public Schools is exacerbating the inequities that already existed prior to the pandemic.
Students in Buffalo deserve to have the same educational opportunities as other students across the country, New York State, and Erie County. It is not fair to deny students in Buffalo the right to an in-person education as other districts reopen, particularly now that school staff have been vaccinated, masks have proven to be effective in limiting transmission, and the social distancing guidelines from the NYSDOH and CDC have been revised.
Furthermore, the NYSDOH guidelines state that “to ensure equity in education, Responsible Parties should prioritize efforts to return all students to in-person education.” The Buffalo Public School District has a responsibility to reopen all elementary schools immediately and consider ways in which it can bring more secondary students back into the classroom.
Given the misinformation regarding the safety of schools and the longer-term consequences of school closures, WNY Students First will be hosting a series of webinars with experts to help address questions and concerns in the community.
We invite the members of the Buffalo Public School Board and the BPS community to attend these informational sessions to learn more about the science behind school safety and the significant educational and mental health issues that will need to be addressed by educators and doctors in the area over the next several years.
WNY Students First
Over the last several months, WNY Students First has heard from many students, parents, caregivers, and teachers who have shared their stories about the ways in which remote learning has impacted the health of so many children in Western New York. The health consequences are real and they are heartbreaking.
While officials in Erie County refuse to even acknowledge the health crisis among our youngest citizens, it is important for our members to know that they are not alone, that their voices are being heard, and that WNY Students First is committed to helping all of its members in whatever way it can.
To that end, WNY Students First will be hosting online informational meetings over the next several weeks to bring students, parents, teachers, school leaders, doctors, and scientists together to raise awareness of the safety of schools and to help families find the support that their children need after more than a year of remote instruction.
These information sessions will focus on three critical areas: 1) mental health, 2) educational gaps, and 3) the safety of schools.
To be clear, these informational meetings are not meant to divert attention from the meaningful work being done by all counties in Western New York as it relates to educating the community about the importance of vaccinations and the use of masks. Indeed, it is the effectiveness of both vaccinations for school staff and masks for children that has made schools safe.
Rather, these informational meetings are intended to help address the void that has been created by the lack of local leadership on the issues of children’s health and school safety.
Earlier this year, WNY Students First focused its efforts on raising awareness of the impact of prolonged school closures on the mental health of children, highlighting the scientific research that shows that schools are safe when masks are used, and attempting to engage with the local officials to help schools reopen safely.
While WNY Students First remains focused on the mental health of students and the safe reopening of schools, it is clear that our efforts to engage with Erie County have failed. Sadly, we have concluded that the leaders there are more interested in politics than the health of our children.
Nonetheless, WNY Students First remains committed to doing what it can to support students throughout Western New York. The upcoming informational meetings reflect our continued commitment to address some of the misinformation coming from Erie County, raise awareness of the issues facing school-aged children, help families find the support that they need, and work cooperatively with school district stakeholders to reopen safely.
In addition, WNY Students First will be engaging with other counties in Western New York to make sure that needs of students there are being addressed as well. So far, WNY Students First has been extremely encouraged by the efforts of officials in other counties in Western New York to help schools reopen safely and support those children that have suffered from more than a year of remote instruction.
This does not mean that WNY Students First is giving up on Erie County. Our invitation to work in partnership with Erie County officials remains open as the sole objective of WNY Students First is to advocate for students in the region.
Furthermore, WNY Students First encourages its members in Erie County to reach out whenever the organization can help. Specifically, we want to hear from those families that are struggling to find support for their school-aged children. We want to hear from stakeholders in school districts that are not following the science in reopening. We want to hear from school officials that believe that the County is not working in good faith to help them reopen safely, as recommended by the NYSDOH. And, we want to hear from those who believe that the ECDOH is inappropriately quarantining students and staff that are not within 6 feet of an infectious person for more than 15 minutes, as recommended by the CDC. WNY Students First will continue to advocate for those students in Erie County that are being harmed by not having access to the essential service of in-person education.
WNY Students First will not be distracted by the petty and divisive political agendas of local politicians. Instead, WNY Students First will remain steadfast in its commitment to support all students and schools in Western New York through community engagement, education, and advocacy.
We look forward to seeing you on one of our upcoming informational webinars and continuing the important work to advocate for students throughout Western New York during these challenging times.
As always, please reach out with any questions or thoughts.
WNY Students First
WNY Students First is calling on Mr. Poloncarz to demand the resignation of Dr. Gale Burstein for not fulfilling her obligation to protect the health and well-being of children in Erie County. Not only are the ECDOH policies directly harming school-aged children, they are doing absolutely nothing to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Over the past few weeks, representatives from several school districts in Erie County have reached out to WNY Students First to express their frustration with Dr. Burstein and what they see as a continued effort by the ECDOH to actively work against those schools that would like to reopen for the benefit of students.
Specifically, Dr. Burstein has apparently threatened those schools that plan on reopening at less than six feet of social distancing between students by stating that the ECDOH will quarantine all students and staff in a classroom or on a bus when there is a confirmed Covid-19 case. This is a highly abnormal policy that is not being followed in other areas and has no scientific merit.
The ECDOH school quarantine policy runs counter to the latest scientific research that clearly shows that transmission rates in schools are extremely low when masks are used, and conflicts with the recently updated CDC guidance, which defines a close contact as “someone who was within 6 feet of a person diagnosed with COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24 hour period.”
Despite the growing body of scientific evidence and the conservative CDC guidance, the ECDOH appears to be taking a much more aggressive and radical approach to quarantining students and staff members in schools. The sole purpose of this extreme policy can only be to keep schools closed, since it is not backed by science.
The latest effort by the ECDOH continues a disturbing pattern of overreach whereby the County has worked to prevent the safe reopening of schools in Erie County. In contrast with other counties in New York State, Dr. Burstein overruled the NYSDOH earlier this year by not allowing schools in Erie County to reopen at less than six feet of social distancing with the use of masks and barriers. In addition, the ECDOH has arbitrarily recommended that some schools in Erie County close even when health guidelines were being followed and there was no in-school transmission.
By any objective measure, these policies are not working. Erie County has had one of the highest transmission rates in the entire State. Indeed, the only thing that the ECDOH school policies have definitively accomplished is to set students behind academically and harm the mental health of many school-aged children.
In calling for Mr. Poloncarz to demand the resignation of Dr. Burstein, WNY Students First cites the following ECDOH actions and policies that run counter to public interests:
As County officials have noted previously, Erie County has indeed taken a very different approach than almost every other county in New York State with respect to schools. County health officials have enriched themselves through the unusual practice of paying overtime to salaried managers while making every effort to overrule the NYSDOH to keep schools closed and to mislead the public about the safety of schools.
The result: a growing mental health crisis for students, severe educational losses for children, and one of the highest transmission rates in the entire State.
It is time to recognize what everyone already knows, namely that not only are these policies not effective in reducing transmission rates in our community, they are unnecessarily harming children and costing taxpayers millions of dollars. As they say, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
WNY Students First is calling on County Executive Poloncarz to find new leadership for the ECDOH, and for the Health Department to redirect its efforts and financial resources to provide the support that so many children desperately need after more than a year of remote instruction.
Taxpayer funds should be going to help kids that have been left behind by the County during the pandemic, not to line the pocket book of Dr. Burstein. The community would be better served if this money instead went to the schools, teachers, doctors, and social workers that will be called upon to help repair the damage that the County officials, including Dr. Burstein, have helped create.
WNY Students First looks forward to hopefully working together with the County under new leadership at the ECDOH to help establish a more science-based, balanced, and collaborative process for reopening schools and supporting school-aged children with input from local doctors and all school district stakeholders, including students, parents, caregivers, and teachers.
WNY Students First
WNY Students First is providing the following statement to its members, the media, school districts in Western New York, and our county health departments in response to the updated NYSDOH guidance for schools as well as the ECDOH statement on schools.
WNY Students First is pleased to see that the arbitrary six foot social distancing guideline, which prevented many schools in New York State from reopening fully, was reduced to three feet. Science never supported this “health” guideline as it did less to slow transmission than it did harm to students.
This change should allow all elementary schools in New York State to reopen fully this spring at any level of community transmission.
However, WNY Students First remains concerned that the ECDOH, based on the statement that it issued regarding the updated NYSDOH school guidance, will continue to make it difficult for elementary schools in Erie County to reopen fully this spring by continuing to quarantine those children that are within six feet of an infectious student for more than ten minutes. This outdated policy runs counter to the data from the CDC that shows that transmission rates in schools are extremely low at three feet of social distancing when masks are used.
WNY Students First is asking the ECDOH to update its quarantine policies for schools to reflect the latest scientific research as well as the recently revised guidance from the CDC and the NYSDOH. The six-foot quarantine policy is clearly inconsistent with the updated guidance from the CDC and the NYSDOH and will only serve to continue to harm children.
Given the unnecessary damage that has already been done to young students this year, WNY Students First expects local schools districts and health departments to work together to ensure that all elementary schools are open as soon as possible to those families that wish to see their children attend school full-time, consistent with the mandate from the NYSDOH.
WNY Students First is extremely disappointed that the NYSDOH social distancing guidelines for middle schools and high schools are tied to community transmission rates. At just 100 new cases per 100,000 people over 7 days, middle schools and high schools will need to either move back to six feet of social distancing or cohort, according to the new guidance. Since many schools, particularly high schools, are unable to cohort, this guideline will effectively force many secondary schools in New York State to remain in hybrid mode.
Scientific studies, including research from the CDC, show that transmission rates in schools are extremely low even when community spread is high. While transmission rates in older students have been slightly higher than younger students, the difference has been negligible in schools when masks are used properly. Furthermore, the latest research definitively proves that there is next to no difference in transmission rates in schools at three feet or six feet spacing when masks are used, a point reinforced by the CDC and the change in NYSDOH distancing guidance itself.
Like the arbitrary six feet distancing requirement last fall, the new guidance with respect to distancing and cohorting serves no purpose other than preventing many secondary schools from fully reopening this spring. We believe that the scientific and legal validity of this guideline is questionable at best.
By effectively preventing many secondary schools from reopening this spring, and not following the science, the updated guidelines are taking students outside of the safest possible environment, the classroom, and forcing them back into the community where transmission rates are much higher and masks are used less frequently.
In addition to the devastating impact that remote/hybrid learning is having on the mental health of many middle and high school-aged children, the new guidelines will likely result in higher levels of community transmission, not less. This policy will endanger the health and well-being of students and adults throughout New York State.
WNY Students First will continue to advocate for students in secondary schools and will help its members evaluate any and all options to help bring these children back to school fully and safely this spring.
One of the biggest tragedies during the pandemic has been the denial of critical services for children with disabilities. While the updated NYSDOH guidance clearly calls for the prioritization of “in-person instruction for students with disabilities who require special education and related services,” WNY Students First is concerned about the highly abnormal policies that have been used by the ECDOH, vis-à-vis other counties, to deny important services for the children in the community with special needs.
WNY Students First demands that this injustice stop immediately. Enough damage has been done to these children and Erie County officials, including Mark Poloncarz, Dr. Burstein, and Mary Martin, should be held responsible.
County Health Departments
The NYSDOH guidance makes it clear that “local health departments are the entity charged with ensuring the enforcement of these minimum standards.” However, in Western New York, our county health commissioners have ignored the NYSDOH guidance all year by not allowing schools to reopen fully with the use of masks and barriers, as occurred in other counties throughout New York State.
WNY Students First calls on Dr. Burstein and Mr. Stapleton to follow the updated NYSDOH guidance and work cooperatively with school districts to “prioritize efforts to return all students to in-person instruction” this spring, as required by the State. Our local leaders need to be held accountable for their role in preventing schools from reopening and harming students, especially if they continue to do so this spring.
WNY Students First notes that the CDC recently updated its guidance with respect to the transmission of Covid-19 from surfaces. In short, though “it is possible to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites),…the risk is generally considered to be low.” The latest research shows that there is absolutely no scientific reason to withhold students from school one day per week to disinfect surfaces.
WNY Students First is calling upon school districts to return to in-person instruction five days per week when allowed per NYSDOH guidelines.
The updated NYSDOH guidance also requires school districts to “provide opportunities for feedback” from school district stakeholders prior to changing social distancing between students.
WNY Students First expects school districts to properly weigh input from students, parents, caregivers, and school district stakeholders in the reopening process this time around given the tremendous damage that has already been done to children over the last 13 months.
Lastly, the NYSDOH guidelines state that “the school/district’s decision to move to shorter physical distances will come down to a local community’s risk tolerance based on its unique circumstances.”
WNY Students First believes that school districts have a legal obligation to reduce social distancing to three feet, when allowed, in order to increase access to in-person instruction if parents and caregivers wish to have their children attend school. WNY Students First does not believe that school districts should be allowed to use wider spacing requirements that have no scientific basis to prevent students from receiving in-person instruction.
If the CDC and NYSDOH deem three feet of distancing to be safe, WNY Students First does not believe that school districts should be permitted to arbitrarily overrule the public health departments, and any attempt to do so, as Buffalo Public Schools did this year with their arbitrary eight foot distancing requirement, may represent a breach of their legal obligations.
WNY Students First will continue to advocate for students in all school districts in Western New York, including Buffalo Public Schools, that are being denied the basic right to an education and will support those members that would like to consider ways in which the community can help bring these students back to school.
 New York State Department of Health, “Interim Guidance for In-Person Instruction at Pre-K to Grade 12 Schools During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency,” April 9, 2021
 Erie County Department of Health, “Erie County Department of Health Provides Statement in Response to Updates to New York State School Guidance,” April 10, 2021
 Amy Falk, MD; Alison Benda; Peter Falk, OD; Sarah Steffen, MMP; Zachary Wallace; Tracy Beth Hoeg, MD, PhD, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “COVID-19 Cses and Transmission in 17 K-21 Schools, Wood County Wisconsin, August 31-November 29, 2020,” January 29, 2021
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 and Surface (Fomite) Transmission for Indoor Community Environments,” April 5, 2021.
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