Dr. Gale R. Burstein
Commissioner of Health
Erie County Department of Health
95 Franklin Street
Buffalo, NY 14202
We are writing to help set the record straight regarding a few misleading comments made by you and Mr. Poloncarz during your March 9 update.
First, the school reopening guidelines from the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH), which have not been updated to incorporate the latest scientific research on in-school transmission or the reduced risk related to teacher vaccinations, are not in-line with the guidance from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH). To suggest otherwise is extremely misleading.
As you are aware, the NYSDOH guidance clearly calls for social distancing of “six feet in all directions between individuals OR use of appropriate physical barriers between individuals.” By not recommending that schools use barriers and masks when distancing of six feet is not possible, the guidelines from the ECDOH are far more restrictive than the NYSDOH guidance released last summer.
Last week, officials in Onondaga County moved to allow schools to reopen fully at less than six feet spacing between students with the use of masks and barriers, consistent with the NYSDOH guidelines. They even went so far as to purchase the barriers so that schools there could reopen fully as soon as possible.
Instead of working to help schools reopen fully and safely, as officials in Onondaga County did last week, our County leaders have chosen to mislead the public.
In another example of misleading the residents of Erie County, Mr. Poloncarz, in attempting to address the risks related to in-school transmission, commented that there have been “a high number of cases that are spreading through in-person instruction.” This is also false. To equate cases in schools with transmission in schools is extremely misleading.
Most studies show that in-school transmission is extremely low and virtually non-existent when masks are used properly. Even the ECDOH has suggested that most of the transmission that has occurred in schools has been due to staff members not following the health guidelines. In short, the masks have worked.
Of course, parents, caregivers, teachers, and school boards would know more about in-school transmission in our region if the ECDOH would provide the data but the County has ignored our requests for more transparency. Sadly, our County officials have chosen fear over science, and obfuscation over transparency.
And then there is misleading by omission. The ECDOH continues to ignore the serious health issues that children are facing as a result of the prolonged school closures. No data seems to mean no problem in the political world.
But, pediatricians, parents, and students are trying to tell you that there is a growing health crisis among our youngest citizens that demands the attention of our public health officials. Doctors in Western New York recently sent a letter to the State outlining the serious health concerns related to remote/hybrid learning and recommending the full reopening of schools by relaxing the six feet distancing guideline.
Instead of leading on this critical issue, the ECDOH has decided to point fingers at State officials, hype the risks of in-school transmission (without providing data), and ignore the mental health problems of children.
This is no longer just a matter of not following the science. Our public health experts are now actively engaging in a campaign to misinform the public in a misguided effort to defend a policy which no longer makes sense scientifically and is unnecessarily harming children.
Enough is enough.
We ask you and County Executive Poloncarz to stop misleading the public, be more transparent, follow the science, and help our children.
WNY Students First
cc: Mark C. Poloncarz
Erie County Superintendents
Erie County Legislature
WNY STUDENTS FIRST MARKS ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF SCHOOL CLOSURES
WITH NEW AWARENESS CAMPAIGN
WNY Students First announces a new awareness campaign to mark the one-year anniversary that schools in the region closed their doors to full-time, in-person instruction.
As part of that campaign, the group will call attention to the need for open schools on a billboard along the 33. Beginning on Monday, March 8th, and running for one month, the billboard will rotate three messages that highlight the safety of schools and the urgency of returning children to classrooms as soon as possible.
Parent Advocate, Dana Hensley, says “Every day that our kids are out of school is one day too many. After one year, it’s time to follow science - not politics - and return teachers and students safely to classrooms. It can be done.”
In addition, WNY Students First will produce a powerful zoom event entitled "One Year Later: I Am" to mark this year of loss for our children. The event will take place on Sunday, March 14th, at 6pm EST., and feature speakers including Vonetta T. Rhodes, Buffalo poet and educator, Melanie Gabriel, 8th grader, activist, and founder of the Open Schools USA group, Samuel L. Radford III, Buffalo public school activist and community leader, and Eleni Filippatos, public school teacher and founder of the group, Teachers for Open Schools. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for the zoom link.
ABOUT: 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.
Tarja Parssinen, Parent Advocate
WNY Students First
We are writing to express our disappointment with the lack of transparency being provided by the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) regarding the transmission of Covid-19 in area schools and the apparent lack of concern for the health of children in our community.
During your update on February 23, you and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz highlighted the number of positive Covid tests in schools as a justification for not reopening schools in Erie County.
However, the ECDOH has not provided the more relevant data that allows residents and schools to better understand the risks related to reopening our schools. In fact, the lack of transparency is needlessly creating more fear and confusion, which will prove to be more damaging when the County finally does change its school reopening guidelines.
(please read the entire letter in the attached PDF)
These notes were shared with us by a WNY Students First Parent. They have been slightly modified to preserve the identities of government personnel.
On 2/22/21 at 1:31 p.m. I called looking to speak with the Assistant Commissioner, Office of School Governance, Policy and Religious and Independent schools for the State Education Department. I was calling about an August 26, 2020 memo regarding COVID 19 Reopening Guidance - Facilities Clarifications - http://www.nysed.gov/common/nysed/files/programs/reopening-schools/reopening-plans-clarifications-memo.pdf. Specifically, I wanted clarification about (4) Desk Separation and having six feet of distance between desks in the schools.
When I called the phone was answered by an assistant and I explained the reason for my phone call. She advised that this was a facilities memorandum and I would need to speak with individuals in the New York State Education Department facilities planning department about the intention behind the memo. She gave me their contact information. I hung up and immediately called that number and a voicemail picked-up and I left a message that I was looking to discuss the August 26, 2020 memo.
Within minutes I received a call back. I mentioned that I was confused by the August 26, 2020 memo directing six feet of distance between desks because it contradicts the NYSDOH Guidance of the same day, August 26, 2020, that defines social distancing as six feet OR a physical barrier. The individual I spoke with said he believed the intention behind the memo was six feet regardless of a barrier, but he wanted to confer with the architect he worked to draft this memo. I was put on hold for a few minutes and when he returned he said he spoke to the architect and the intention behind the memo was to have six feet distance between desks in school regardless of a barrier when the guidelines were drafted.
I then said I was confused because the NYS Education Department law says six feet between desks but the NYS Health Department required 6 feet distance or a barrier. I also mentioned that my daughter goes to preschool at a private school and she sits at a desk with two other students and there are barriers, but nowhere near 6 feet of distance and that I also know other schools that are open without six feet of distance in New York State. He responded that all of the information I was citing are guidelines and not laws. He said laws have to be passed by the NYS Legislature and there has been no law passed by the NYS Legislature requiring six feet or barriers in schools. I asked if schools do not follow these guidelines would there be consequences, such as loss of funding? He said no, because again, they are guidelines and not mandatory. He said schools may feel like they should follow the guidelines, but there is no requirement that they do so.
I asked who makes the decision for my school district that there needs to be six feet of distance between desks? He said each district acts as its own governing body and it is up to the School Board, Superintendent and administration to decide how to reopen. For clarity, I said if my district decided to reopen full-time and five days without any distancing right now they could? He said yes.
He recommended that I speak with a woman in Student Support Services. I have been unable to connect with her to date.
WNY Students First has published an open letter to Dr. Zucker at the New York State Department of Health. The letter details the devastating effects of remote / hybrid "learning" on children. In addition, the group highlights the latest research that shows that schools can open fully and safely at less than 6 feet with masks and other precautions.
WNY Students First is calling on Dr. Zucker and Governor Cuomo to fulfill their mandate to "protect, improve and promote the health, productivity and well-being" of our children.
Attached, please find a copy of the letter that was sent earlier to Dr. Zucker and Governor Cuomo.
Click the link above to download the full copy of the letter.
Dr. Gale R. Burstein
Commissioner of Health
Erie County Department of Health
95 Franklin Street
Buffalo, NY 14202
As the Commissioner of Health, your job is to “promote and protect the health, safety, and
well-being of Erie County residents through active prevention, education, enforcement,
advocacy and partnerships.” This includes protecting the well-being of our youngest
Public health, as it relates to children, is not simply the absence of disease or infirmity, it is
the state of physical, mental, intellectual, social, and emotional well-being that affords
children the opportunity to reach their fullest developmental potential.
Covid-19 represents just one of many potential health problems. Unfortunately, the severity
of the pandemic has taken the attention away from other serious health issues, particularly
for younger people. While Covid-19 represents a meaningful health risk for older people,
the reality is that for the vast majority of children, the loss of full in-person schooling
represents a much greater health issue than Covid-19.
Gone unnoticed is the fact that remote/hybrid “learning” is having a devastating impact on
the physical, social, and emotional health of children of all ages. Isolation, depression, and
malnutrition have reached crisis levels during the pandemic. The academic toll will take
years to overcome for those students that do not drop out of school altogether. Yet, there
are few statistics to measure the very real damage being done to our younger generations.
Pediatricians across the country have been trying to sound the alarm on the negative health
consequences related to the loss of in-person schooling, but our public health officials, even
those with a background in pediatric medicine, seem more concerned about public
perception than the actual well-being of our children. After all, it is easier to track the tragic
effects of Covid-19 than the collateral damage being done to our children.
On this shipwreck, everyone receives a lifeboat except for the kids. Sadly, political science
appears to be trumping actual science.
Download the doc above to read the full letter from WNY Students First to Dr. Burstein.
A transcript of Savannah's Speech follows:
Hi, my name is Savannah Hensley. Thank you for allowing me to speak. I also want to thank the Board members for volunteering their time and energy to oversee the district and the administrators and teachers for doing their best in such a rough time.
I am 13 years old and I am in 7th grade at Casey Middle School. I have 3 younger siblings and they’re all struggling with the effects of covid right now, like pretty much everybody. My siblings do not have learning disabilities, actually, they’re all pretty smart. My brother is now going to a private school because his grades and mental health were plummeting when we were in the midst of virtual school. He does not struggle normally in school, he is actually in 6th grade and taking 7th grade math and he skipped kindergarten too. My youngest sister goes to preschool 5 days a week, so guess who’s supervising her other sister while my mom takes her to preschool and my dad works. Me. My zoom starts at 8:55 and my sister’s starts at 9. You do the math. I’m not the only kid taking care of their siblings while their parent’s at work, school, or grocery shopping. Ask your students. How many of them are babysitting while in their zooms/meets? My grades have definitely suffered this year. And I have a better situation than most. I have internet at my house and I have a loving and supportive family.
Other states mask and distance when possible, but they do not adhere to the 6 foot rule because the benefit of school is huge and the harm of keeping kids in the virtual world is big.
Who is fighting for us to go to school everyday? It seems like nobody but our parents. Teachers and administrators tell our parents that they want us all back in school full time but I’m not seeing them fighting for us publicly. We need to see and hear your fighting for us. Call a press conference. The board should write a collective letter to legislators, Erie County Department of Health and the state. Dr. McKenna should group with other superintendents and demand change to the 6 ft rule. A representative of President Biden recently said that the President wants by day 100 of his presidency 1 day a week for kids in school. What about before then? What about the fall? What about the kids who aren’t showing up to classes?
We are not driving the pandemic. We are the casualties.
I chose to speak tonight. These are my words, and I am speaking them for every child in this district that isn’t old enough to.
I am asking you, adults in the room, Who will fight for us? As Dr. Seuss once said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change, it’s not.”
WNY Students First announces its first event marking the one-year anniversary of school closures and the loss our students have experienced. This will be a zoom event on Sunday, March 14th, scheduled for 6pm, featuring selected speakers, including Buffalo community leader and public school education activist, Samuel L. Radford III.