BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) — One state lawmaker insists the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) should be issuing guidance to schools for reopening this fall.
“Health decisions come from health professionals, not school superintendents,” remarked Patrick Burke, New York State Assemblyman.
Last week the NYSDOH announced it was not issuing guidance since the state of emergency ended.
Assemblyman Burke helped pen this letter he signed with ten other assembly members from across the state, addressed to State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, urging his department to issue guidance to schools and districts.
The letter says the health department's “refusal to offer guidance is a complete abdication of the department's responsibility to public health and leaves families in a state of uncertainty”.
“It should not be up to individual school districts to make individual decisions that effect all of us,” Burke noted. “This isn’t a political issue.”
But since the state announced it would not issue guidance, Erie County's Health Department said it would be helping school districts.
The county health department's public information officer confirmed the department invited a small group of school leaders to a meeting Monday to provide feedback about COVID-19 health and safety guidance to the department.
In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, the county health department said it met with school leaders from “rural, suburban and urban school districts, including Erie 1 BOCES and Erie 2 BOCES.”
The county health department stated “the purpose of this meeting was to hear about school leaders’ experiences with COVID-19 health and safety guidance during the last school year and this summer.”
“This is a welcome opportunity for ECDOH and schools to move forward together with practices that reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission in school settings, and maximize student and staff time within classrooms and extracurricular activities,” said Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein. “The school leaders’ insights are valuable for our school team to hear, and we discussed use of face masks, physical distancing, return to school protocols, transportation and lunch settings.”
But the health department did not reveal names of superintendents invited to participate.
7 Eyewitness News learned Hamburg School Superintendent Michael Cornell, who also serves serves as the president of the Buffalo Niagara Superintendents Association, was not asked to join the meeting. He declined our request to comment.
Also not on the invite list, Kenmore-Tonawanda Schools Superintendent Sabatino Cimato.
The Ken-Ton superintendent issued a letter last week saying the county health department is in the process of collaborating with school districts and will notify of the next steps soon.
At last week's Ken-Ton school board meeting some parents spoke out against the controversial topic of mask wearing.
“I would love to have the freedom to send my kids to school to have the freedom to decide that they do not need to be masked all day,” stated Jessica Rick, school parent.
“Ken-Ton — like were shot out of a cannon— we're making sure that we are coming out of this on fire and moving this district forward — we are not looking to just be were we were pre-pandemic,” Climate stated.
Grand Island Central Schools Superintendent Brian Graham confirmed he was invited to the session.
In an email, Graham indicated that the ECDOH listens to a “focus group” of local school leaders.
The ECDOH is expected to created their own guidance for schools for the upcoming school year which begins in about four weeks.
Assemblyman Burke says parents are anxiously awaiting guidance, especially with the new rise in cases among children.
“I've heard from concerned parents about the Delta variant and what it is going to mean for their children, so that’s something we are taking seriously,” Burke explained.
But the county health department has given no deadline for when it would be issuing its school recommendations.
“There is no set timetable for any ECDOH school recommendation announcements. However, ECDOH recognizes the extreme time constraints that schools face in creating policies and operational plans, and communicating with parents and families before September. ECDOH will share any guidance with school leaders and the general public as soon as it is available,” stated ECDOH. "
The county health department said all school leaders in Erie County are "welcome to share their experiences with COVID-19 health and safety guidance by emailing the ECDOH at firstname.lastname@example.org.
7 Eyewitness News reached out to the NYSDOH to respond to the request from the assembly members.
The DOH referred us to the statement issued last week from Commissioner Zucker.