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.