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Erie County releases school guidance: masks required indoors regardless of vaccination status

"We've agreed that this is the path forward"
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Posted at 11:15 AM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 08:59:26-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Erie County released its COVID-19 guidance for the 2021-2022 school year Monday.

According to county officials, the New York State Department of Health not issuing COVID-19 guidance to schools came as a surprise, this guidance has been issued with the goal of safely returning students to in-person learning for the entire school year.

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The areas the Erie County guidance addresses.

The guidance, which can be found here, applies to all schools in the county including public, private and charter schools. It was based on CDC guidance and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was developed with input from Erie County schools leaders, pediatricians, epidemiology staff and parents. Officials say the guidance is subject to change based on COVID-19 trends and NYS guidance.

As part of the 12-page guidance that was issued, officials say masks will be required indoors for everyone over the age of two, regardless of vaccination status. ECDOH says schools should implement physical distancing to the extent possible as well. There will be daily health screenings and each school will need to have an isolation area/room for someone who develops COVID-19 symptoms while at school.

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Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz issuing new guidance for schools.

You can find a summary of the ECDOH guidance below and find the full guidance here.

Masking - Face masks are required indoors for all individuals age 2 years and older, regardless of vaccination status, at all times in all classroom and non-classroom settings, and buses. Masks are
strongly recommended outdoors. Mask breaks may be taken by students once every hour for approximately 5 minutes. Students should be seated and stationary at their desks during mask breaks. If students are seated closer than 6 feet, stagger breaks so that students closer than 6 feet are not taking breaks at the same time. Persons who cannot safely wear a mask because of a disability or medical condition should work with the school for a reasonable accommodation.

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Erie County's guide on physical distancing.

Physical Distancing - Schools should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their facilities but should not exclude students from in-person learning to meet a minimum distance requirement. Several studies from the 2020-2021 school year show low COVID-19 transmission levels among students in schools that had less than 6 feet of physical distance when the school implemented and layered other prevention strategies, such as the use of masks. The guidance document outlines recommendations for students, staff, band, chorus & orchestra, busing and transportation, and cohorting.

Health Monitoring - ECDOH requires daily health screenings, including temperature and a COVID19 symptom check upon entry into school of all students, faculty, staff, contractors, vendors, and
visitors to identify individuals who may have COVID-19. ECDOH requires that if a student or staff member develops COVID-19 symptoms while at school, regardless of vaccination status, the ill person must immediately be placed in an isolation area/room at school and picked up by a parent/guardian if a student or sent home if a staff member. ECDOH requires schools to maintain isolation areas/rooms separated from others for students or staff who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. These designated rooms should be monitored, overseen, and logged.

Returning to School Following Illness - The guidance document outlines return-to-school requirements for students and staff following COVID-19-like illness or a positive COVID-19 test. ECDOH offers free COVID-19 PCR testing to symptomatic Erie County residents and close contacts of confirmed cases. Other local testing sites are listed at www.erie.gov/covidtestsites. COVID-19
diagnostic testing is fully covered by all health insurance plans per federal mandates. A negative at-home COVID-19 test result will NOT be accepted to return a student to school or school staff to work.

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Erie County school guidance.

When the School Receives Notice of a COVID-19 Positive Case - ECDOH requires schools to notify the ECDOH school team of all positive COVID-19 cases reported by staff, students, or guardians. The school is required to prepare a list of classroom, bus, sports, and extracurricular activities close contacts. Close contacts are defined as students who are within 3 feet or teachers/staff who are within 6 feet from the positive COVID-19 case for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period during a time the case was infectious.

Quarantine - ECDOH uses the close contact definition along with the duration of exposure, proximity, and presence of symptoms to determine who is an exposed contact and therefore subject to quarantine. Schools are required to cooperate with contact tracers to determine close contacts and compile contact information. ECDOH will notify parents and staff who are considered to be contacts exposed to a COVID-19 case. Persons are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 ≥2 weeks after they have received the second dose in a 2-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), or ≥2 weeks after they have received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson [J&J]/Janssen). The guidance document outlines quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated close contacts.

Youth Sports - ECDOH requires schools to notify the ECDOH school team of all youth sport positive COVID-19 cases reported by coaches, staff, students, or guardians. The guidance document outlines criteria to pause sports team activities and/or quarantine unvaccinated players and coaching staff. If a school or district shifts students to virtual learning because of the number of COVID 19 cases in a building or district, all youth sports associated with the school are required to stop for the duration of the virtual learning period.

COVID-19 Vaccination - Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely continue in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports. Fully vaccinated individuals will not be subject to the same quarantine requirements as those who are not fully vaccinated in most circumstances.

COVID-19 Screening Testing - COVID-19 screening testing is recommended for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated at least once per week during moderate, substantial, and high transmission as per CDC guidance. ECDOH continues to work with schools to implement COVID-19 screening testing programs to those interested.

Cleaning and Disinfection - In general, cleaning once a day sufficiently removes potential virus that may be on surfaces. Disinfecting (using disinfectants on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency COVID-19 list: https://www.epa.gov/coronavirus/about-list-n-disinfectants-coronavirus-covid-19-0) removes any remaining germs on surfaces, which further reduces any risk of spreading infection. If a facility has had a sick person or someone who tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 24 hours, clean AND disinfect the space.

Ventilation - ECDOH encourages improving ventilation (HVAC and air filtration systems), bringing fresh outdoor air into buildings, opening multiple doors and windows, and using child-safe fans. During transportation, open or crack windows in buses and other forms of transportation, if doing so does not pose a safety risk.

But in issuing the guidance, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said it is not just about requiring masks in classrooms.

"This is not just about masks. This is ensuring a safe setting to return students to an in-class learning experience to protect the students the teachers and others," declared Poloncarz.

Poloncarz and school leaders say the goal of the new guidance is to make sure students across the county can return to five-day a week, in-person learning for the entire school year safely.

School leaders, who joined the county executive Monday, say they're embracing it.

"We've agreed that this is the path forward," stated Michael Cornell, president, Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association, Hamburg Central Schools superintendent.

"We all know that there is not one single strategy that works to keep everyone safe at school. It's multi-layered. We also call it the Swiss Cheese model," remarked Dr. Dennis Kuo, medical director, Buffalo Public School District.

"While you think the relationship and the development of guidance just happened over the past few weeks - it's really been a conversations that's been occurring throughout the whole COVID period," explained Lynn Fusco, district superintendent, Erie 1 BOCES.

When the state health department announced a few weeks ago that it would not be offering guidance, the county pledged to work with school districts to hammer out recommendations.

"We had district representatives say please implement a mask order because we don't know if we can enforce it on our own," Poloncarz noted.

"I'd say i felt quite involved and it was a broad based group of us not just the three of us," Cornell replied.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein says it is important protect children in the classroom..

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Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

"We know that children can transmit and get infected with COVID-19 even if they are asymptomatic," Dr. Busrtein stated.

The county guidance does not mandate social distancing, but highly recommends it.

There's a recognition that there are trade offs on this that masks requirement was necessary to get all the kids into those distances so those pieces go together," responded David O'Rourke, district superintendent, Erie 2 BOCES.

The county says it will also provide random COVID testing for schools, but it will not accept home COVID testing from families.

"We want a test that has been conducted under the supervision of a licensed provider at some level," Burstein said.

County leaders say they believe a "vast majority' of parents support mask wearing in the classroom.

But there has been a movement against it throughout the county.

Poloncarz says if parents are against it, their children will not be allowed in school.

"But you can't send your kid to school and put other children at risk," Poloncarz responded.

I asked Poloncarz if he’s concerned about lawsuits from the anti-mask movement and he says the county is ready.

"They have the right to litigate. They can sue us - you'll waste your money if you do that," replied Poloncarz.