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Erie County mandates face masks for K-12 students and staff at all schools

Mark Poloncarz standing at a podium with the Erie County and New York State flags next to him
Tom Dinki
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz speaks at a news conference Aug. 23, 2021, to announce the county's school reopening guidance for the 2021-22 school year.

Masks will be required for all Erie County students, faculty and other personnel when the school bells ring to open the 2021-22 academic year.

The Erie County Department of Health released local guidanceMonday, two weeks after the New York State Department of Health announced it would not be issuing any reopening guidance to schools, and just three days after Erie County moved into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "high" transmission category for COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, the New York State Department of Health abdicated its responsibility, and said it's up to the locals to decide what to do with regards to schools," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "Well, we know what is appropriate for our community here in Erie County. And that is why the Erie County Department of Health has put together a guidance, which does include orders for all schools in Erie County, regardless once again of whether they are public or private."

The guidance applies to all K-12 schools in the county, including public, private and charter schools.

The mask mandate is regardless of vaccination status. County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said that's because students 12 and younger cannot get vaccinated, and even students who are vaccinated can still become infected.

"The goal is to keep everybody safe and healthy, and to keep in-person learning as much as possible," Burstein said. "Get kids in the school, and we all have the same goals. I think we all want the same thing. And we put together these guidelines to help people make safe choices to get there safely and efficiently.”

The county's mask guidance falls in line with the CDC's guidance that was released as a response to the Delta variant.

Given new evidence on the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, CDC has updated the guidance for fully vaccinated people. CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.
Centers for Disease Control

When asked what will happen if a parent chooses to not mask their child, Poloncarz was blunt: "They're not going to be allowed in school. They'll have to home school their children. They have an option, but they have to wear a mask in school, it's to protect not only their child, but the other children who are in that school, teachers and the like."

Despite all students having to wear a mask, vaccinated students will have fewer restrictions overall. They will not have to quarantine when considered a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case, and can continue playing sports even when a teammate tests positive. However, student-athletes, regardless of vaccination status, will have to stop playing if more than one teammate tests positive.

The county will also mandate daily health monitoring. Officials say they've previously had symptomatic people enter schools or camps, so daily screening including temperature checks will be mandated before entering schools. Additionally, if someone develops or shows symptoms while already inside of the school, they will have to go to an isolation room that all schools are required to have.

The newly-announced guidance includes strong recommendations about as much physical distancing as possible, including three feet between students in classrooms.

Dr. Dennis Kuo, a local pediatrician whose numerous roles includes serving as medical director for Buffalo Public Schools, was involved in preparing the county's guidance.

"It is important to make sure that all of our kids, including the ones who are disabled, ones who are medically vulnerable, are able to be in school as well as to be able to protect our teachers and staff again, folks who really work in and around the schools because they all need to be in school as well," he said.

Poloncarz noted the guidance is subject to change throughout the school year, based on how the pandemic plays out and potential guidance from the state and federal governments.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.