Dr. Gale R. Burstein
Commissioner of Health
Erie County Department of Health
95 Franklin Street
Buffalo, NY 14202
We are writing to express our profound concern with the decision by the ECDOH to recommend that the Depew Middle School shift to remote learning.
By using “recommendations” to school districts and not following the science regarding transmission in schools, the ECDOH school epidemiology team is effectively forcing schools to close arbitrarily rather than simply quarantining kids with COVID-19 and their close contacts. This represents a potential abuse of power and reflects what we believe to be a growing conflict of interest between the community and the ECDOH.
In a statement, the ECDOH noted that the “school epidemiology team has not found evidence of in-classroom transmission.” In other words, all of these cases were the result of transmission in the community outside of school. Furthermore, the ECDOH has provided very little evidence of transmission in Western New York schools when masks were used, which is consistent with the growing body of scientific research that definitively shows that schools are safe when masks are used properly.
Since the cases in Depew were not the result of in-school transmission, and because the data shows that the risk of transmission in schools is extremely low when masks are used, there is absolutely no scientific basis for the “recommendation” to go fully remote.
In fact, by forcing children back into the community, where masks are used less frequently and where adults are less likely to have been vaccinated than teachers, your “recommendation” actually increases the risk of transmission between kids and for the broader community.
And, by moving back to remote, you are doing more harm to those children in Depew that have been forced to learn via remote or hybrid instruction for over a year now, not that the ECDOH cares much about that health risk these days.
It seems clear that you have been advised by counsel to tell the public and the media that the ECDOH does not set school reopening guidelines, the State does, and that the only role that the ECDOH plays in the process is testing, tracing, and quarantining students and staff.
This is blatantly not true. Through its “recommendations,” the ECDOH has been permitted to create politically motivated policies outside of the normal political process, that do not comply with current NYSDOH guidelines, do not slow the spread of Covid-19, and have been proven to harm children.
As you know, it is extremely difficult for school districts to ignore the “recommendations” of the County Health Commissioner, even when those “recommendations” run counter to the science and the existing NYSDOH guidelines – as they do currently.
Your “recommendations” have put school boards in a very difficult position. They have to either ignore your “recommendations” or ignore the fact that the ECDOH “recommendations” have no scientific basis, contradict the NYSDOH guidance, and, worst of all, harm children.
The implied power of your “recommendations” represents a potential legal overreach that needs to be addressed immediately by the County and the State. What prevents the ECDOH from issuing baseless “recommendations” in the future on other health issues, which effectively take away the rights of one group of people and only serve political purposes? If this overreach is not addressed now, it may create a very dangerous precedent, particularly considering that you are not an elected official.
With these important considerations in mind, WNY Students First is pleading with County Executive Poloncarz and the Erie County Legislature to either limit the authority of the ECDOH or eliminate the school epidemiology team altogether on the grounds that it is not following the science, it is not providing transparency regarding in-school transmission, it is misleading the public with respect to the safety of our schools, it is abusing its powers by using “recommendations” as a means of setting policy, it is not following NYSDOH guidance, and it is harming children in Erie County.
In fact, we believe that the overzealous and potentially illegal actions of the ECDOH school epidemiology team may reflect a growing conflict of interest between residents and the County since transmission rates in schools are so low and the misallocation of funds within the ECDOH, by focusing so much on schools as opposed to more meaningful sources of transmission, is becoming more obvious.
The role of the ECDOH in the school reopening process should be limited to what you have stated publicly and to what you are legally entitled – to test, trace, and quarantine. Anything beyond that represents a potential abuse of power.
Please stop playing politics with the health of our children and please stop using the implicit power in your “recommendations” to deny children their right to an in-person education by preventing schools in Erie County from reopening safely and fully this spring.
WNY Students First
cc: Mark C. Poloncarz
Erie County Superintendents
Erie County Legislature
New York State Association of Counties
New York State Association of County Health Officials