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Parents demand Erie County implement three-foot rule in schools; county says it must wait for state

Parents rallied Tuesday to demand Erie County ease social distancing rules in schools and allow students to attend full time, while county officials maintained the decision is out of their hands.

WNY Students First, a self-described non-partisan group of school district stakeholders across Western New York, held a protest outside the Rath Building during Erie County’s COVID-19 briefing and called on the county to adhere to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


Credit Mike Desmond/WBFO News
WNY Students First protesters rally outside the Rath Building Tuesday.

On Friday, the CDC announced students only need to be spaced three feet apart in the classroom as long as they’re masked.

Under the previous six-foot rule, some schools have remained closed or only partially reopen for hybrid learning because they don’t have the space to keep students six feet apart. So the change to three feet may allow some schools to fully reopen.


“The parents are just fed up,” said one of the WNY Students First protesters, Clarence parent Jill Gallivan. “The point of being here today is to stand up for our children, who deserve to be in school full-time, five days a week. The science is there. It's proven. It’s OK.”


Asked about the protest during his briefing, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said it’s up to the New York State Department of Health and Department of Education to update guidance for schools, not the county. 


“So New York state is in charge,” Poloncarz said. “I know there are parents that aren't happy. They think we don't want them in school five days a week — we want them in school five days a week. It's not my decision.”


The state is currently reviewing the updated CDC guidance and will likely make an announcement about its own guidance soon, Poloncarz said. 


“I thought it might come yesterday. It didn't come yesterday. Hopefully it'll come soon,” he said.


However, other counties have already permitted their school districts to move to the three-foot rule.


OnondagaCounty Executive Ryan McMahon said earlier this month, even before the CDC guidance, that students only need to be three feet apart in the classroom, effectively allowing schools to bring back all of their students.


Poloncarz said Onondaga County and its schools are putting themselves at risk for litigation if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak or death.


“I've actually had an attorney say they're waiting for an issue and a case there to sue the school district and the county,” said Poloncarz, adding he’s also been told insurance may not cover the schools.


Plus, Erie County continues to see high numbers of COVID-19 cases in schools, said County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. Erie County has had at least 162 COVID cases in schools every week so far in 2021. Last week, there were 247, the highest total in five weeks. There’s also currently 15 school sports teams on pause due to COVID.

“So there is still COVID-19 in our schools,” Burstein said. 


Almost all of these new cases are students, as opposed to earlier in the pandemic when it was mostly staff getting sick, Burstein said. That could be because school staff are now eligible to be vaccinated, while children are not.


Credit Erie County
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz speaks at a virtual COVID-19 briefing Tuesday while parents protested outside the Rath Building.

Erie County has already seen student-to-student transmission in schools, primarily private ones, where students are only three feet apart, according to Burstein. She recalled a situation in a local kindergarten classroom where students were spaced three feet apart.

“There were multiple kids that became infected in a very short period of time,” she said. “Even though they were wearing masks, we did have strong evidence that there was transmission and so they ended up closing the classroom.”


The county's largest school district, Buffalo Public Schools, has been fully remote for most of this school year before reopening for some in-person learing last month. WNY Students First says it represents students and parents in all local districts, including Buffalo Public Schools, although no one raised a hand Tuesday when asked if anyone was there from Buffalo.


Parents at the rally expressed concerns that school closures and virtual learning are having long-term consequences for students.


“I see so many children breaking down in tears during these classes,” said Jennifer Liberti-Cemis, a nurse and parent of a part-time kindergartener at Frontier Central School. “It's going to cause permanent damage. And I guarantee in about three years there's going to be studies and research showing the damage we did to these children that we're leaving behind.”

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.