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Erie County pushes test-to-stay in schools, KN95 masks, as in-person classes set to resume next week

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, an interpreter and a slide explaining the test-to-stay program.
Erie County
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein explains the test-to-stay program in a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

Erie County is pushing hard to keep kids and staff in schools, setting up a test-to-stay system in the buildings, encouraging mask use at all times and opposing mask breaks in the classroom.

During a briefing Tuesday, Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said mask breaks are a bad idea, operationally and medically.

"Masks all the time," she said. "The New York State Department of Health issued updated guidance for schools about masking and there is no mask breaks allowed. And this is really important because, as we know, Omicron is so transmissible. If kids and staff have their masks down at the same time, even five minutes can be a risk of transmission. We don't want any in-school transmission."

Burstein also recommended those masks be "really, well-fitting" KN95 instead of cloth that may allow viral particles to pass through.

"Why am I wearing a KN95 mask? Well, we know that the Omicron variant is the dominant strain now in Western New York and it's very, very transmissible," she said. "At least two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which was more transmissible than our original variant that we had of COVID-19."

The county Health Department will be distributing 400,000 KN95 masks this week through outreach, clinic sites, Social Services, Senior Services, municipal emergency managers, branches of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, the United Way, local houses of worship and nonprofits.

Key to the county's latest strategy is the truckloads of instant tests which are supposed to show up...soon. That will allow schools to do mass testing of anyone who might be infected and immediately get them out of the building or clear them to get back into the classroom.

The health commissioner said the county learned a lot from the experimental test-to-stay program on Grand Island.

She said there will be an online meeting next week with county school superintendents to talk about test-to-stay plans. The plan is that test kits will arrive the week after and things can start, although some districts likely won't participate.

In a written statement, Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said his district will announce later Wednesday if full, in-person classes will return on Monday. Cash has said the district has a backup plan if the infection rate forces a return to virtual classes.

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.