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 This outdated policy runs counter to the data from the CDC that shows that transmission rates in schools are extremely low at three feet of social distancing when masks are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.