While WNY Students First is encouraged by the fact that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein now appear to understand the importance of keeping children in school, despite their actions and misleading statements over the last year, the group is extremely concerned that the ECDOH’s unnecessarily restrictive quarantine policy in schools will do the exact opposite this year. If so, this would represent the third year in a row in which in-person instruction is interrupted for school-aged children.
Under the new guidance, all students are required to mask regardless of vaccination status. Despite this cautious approach, “unvaccinated students within 3 feet or unvaccinated teachers/staff within 6 feet from a positive COVID-19 case for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more” will be required to quarantine for 10 days, even if close contacts were masked properly, remain asymptomatic, and test frequently.
Even worse, “if there are two or more cases in a classroom during a 10-day period, all unvaccinated individuals in the class will quarantine for 10 days” even if masks were used and even if there was no evidence of in-school transmission. This is problematic, particularly for elementary schools.
Since all children under 12 are unvaccinated, it seems likely that these arbitrary and highly unusual quarantine guidelines will be disruptive to in-school instruction (and youth sports) once again during the 2021-22 school year, particularly for elementary age students.
Every effort must be made by our public health officials and school administrators to ensure that children have the ability to attend school in person this year without unnecessary disruptions. The risks associated with another year of prolonged class “pauses” significantly outweigh the health risks related to Covid-19 for the vast majority of students.
Arbitrary quarantines and classroom closures will do little to slow the spread of Covid-19 and will only continue to harm our children.
Public health experts in other areas outside Erie County understand the significant harm that is caused by prolonged school closures and unnecessary quarantines. As a result, many have chosen to either remove quarantines altogether or implement “modified quarantines” to allow asymptomatic close contacts to continue to attend school if they were masked at the time of exposure and test twice per week for 10 days.
A balanced approach would minimize the disruptive impact associated with preemptive quarantines by utilizing empirical, local data to inform decisions and policy. It is unclear if Erie County Department of Health tracked this data last year and there is no indication that they are tracking this data for the upcoming school year either.
If masks are so ineffective that highly restrictive quarantine policies and disruptive classroom closures are also needed to stop transmission in schools, why have a mask mandate at all? Masking is not a zero-harm mitigation. Prolonged mask requirements can impact language development, social emotional learning, bonding with others, and literacy in young children and have negative health side-effects.
While WNY Students First does not support arbitrary or long-term mask mandates, the group understands that masks may be useful for brief periods of time to keep children out of quarantine and in school when, and only when, the vaccine is not available to children under the age of 12 AND community infection rates are high.
However, masks should only be used if they are effective in preventing transmission in schools and keeping children in school. If masks are not effective in keeping students in the classroom, then other measures should be used instead. Either way, the goal has to be to keep students in school throughout the year. Quarantines and classroom closures should only be used as a last resort.
School is an essential service and needs to be treated accordingly. Arbitrary quarantines and classroom closures create far more harm than they prevent. Vaccines and frequent testing of close contacts, as opposed to potentially harmful mitigations such as quarantines and school closures, should be used to allow children to continue to attend school and participate in extracurricular activities.
We cannot continue to treat children simply as vectors of this illness when they are least impacted by Covid-19. Classroom closures and quarantines should only be used when all other mitigations, including social distancing, ventilation, masking, and testing, have proven ineffective in preventing transmission in schools. From a scientific perspective, we have the ability to do far better for our students. But do we have the political will?
Lastly, all Covid-related school restrictions must be eliminated once the vaccines have been made available to all students OR when transmission rates decline. Our public health experts need to be transparent and provide students, parents, caregivers, teachers, and school administrators with the metrics that will be used to end the various mandates and restrictions for school-aged children.
Our leaders in Erie County and many of our school administrators have failed students and families over the last year and half. More needs to be done to ensure that students are not harmed by unnecessary quarantines and school closures for a third straight year.
WNY Students First recognizes the challenges associated with limiting transmission of the Delta variant, protecting the health of children, and keeping schools open. This will not be easy. But, we owe it to our children to apply what is working in other areas to help keep schools open in WNY this year, even during periods of high community transmission.
WNY Students First calls on the ECDOH and school superintendents to work together to create a more balanced plan that truly aims to keep our students in the safest place possible – the classroom.
WNY Students First is a non-partisan group of parents, caregivers, teachers, and school district stakeholders across Western New York working toward the common goal of giving students and families an organized and active voice regarding the education of students within their districts. We recognize that families are best equipped to make decisions for their children. We respect their freedom of choice.
As you all are aware, it has been a roller coaster in New York State over the past month with respect to our state government and their role in the reopening plans for schools in the fall.
Over the course of the summer, school districts were alerted by email that they could choose to use camp/ daycare guidance to allow for mask choice, 2020-21 CDC school guidelines, or 2020-21 NYS school guidelines. The vast majority of school districts chose to put parents in the decision making seat as to what was best for their child, with the exception of a few (Buffalo Public Schools and NYC schools). Some families chose to send their children with masks and some chose to send their children without masks. There has been no indication of uncontrolled spread within summer schools or camps.
The CDC and AAP have now recommended universal masking for schools, regardless of vaccination status.
It is important to note that these decisions made by the CDC (and AAP) have not been supported by data and neither of these organizations have made any effort to investigate the most disruptive pieces of remaining COVID school policies- quarantines and masking- or adjust recommendations. Thankfully there has been acknowledgment from both organizations on the importance of in person education, acknowledgment of the science WNYSF and others brought to light in the spring of the arbitrary nature of social distancing requirements and there is no longer a color coded community transmission matrix that forces children into hybrid schooling.
NYSED put forth their own suggested protocols for schools last Thursday. It is the current legal opinion of our counsel that this is not a binding document that mandates compliance. At this point, school districts are responsible for creating their own COVID policies. A few school districts have announced their mask choice policies, but most are in a holding pattern and plan to release details "at a later date." Erie County Department of Health also indicated to area superintendents that they would also be issuing guidance "as soon as possible." It is unclear if this ECDOH guidance would be mandates or not, but there is a current state of emergency in Erie County that was extended by County Executive Poloncarz until September. With the impending resignation of Governor Cuomo, we anticipate that Kathy Hochul will move to make a universal mask requirement for schools as evidenced by several comments she has made to media outlets. This would change our legal approach to be a statewide action.
As the ultimate mandates to be imposed on NY schoolchildren remains undetermined, we are working through various contingent legal strategies to address what we anticipate are the likely outcomes.
The ultimate outcome of any legal action is of critical importance, not only to our children now but in the future. Creating legal precedent on this issue must be done carefully and with the best interests of this and future generations.
Our delay in commencing legal strategy is not a result of waning interest in this issue. Instead, it is a result of carefully evolving legal strategy during an ever evolving challenge while simultaneously advocating to school boards and legislators.
We are still very much in this fight.
We understand how frustrated parents feel and are living and breathing the same emotions. What is the plan one week gives way to something different the next week. Once we see what ECDOH and incoming Governor Hochul do, we will be able to take the next necessary steps.
Please continue advocating for your children by writing and calling your legislators. Thank you for your support and for giving hope to the dream of parents deciding what is best for their children.
Board Member & Legal Liaison