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JD Mullane, Phil Gianficaro and Craig Veltri, Bucks County Courier Times
The Bucks County Health Department has updated it recommendations to school districts after the head of the state health department called parts of its previous guidance inconsistent and alarming” with state and federal agencies.
The update was released Tuesday after the county received a scathing letter from state officials a day earlier.
Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said certain parts of the guidance developed by county Health Director. David Damsker “disregard evidence-based public health best practices.”
“Our hope is that by providing clear, consistent and evidence-based public health best practices our students will be able to resume in-person learning and some semblance of normalcy for the 2021-2022 school year. Without this clear messaging — or worse, with the inconsistent and alarming messaging included in the (county health department) guidance document — I fear our school leaders will not be equipped with the tools to keep our children safely in school,” Beam wrote.
Monday’s letter came after a tumultuous few weeks for the county health department as public demand for school recommendations grew along with new coronavirus cases — and the debate between parents who want their children and others masked versus those who want masks to be optional continues to rage.
The county wrote in its updated guidance that “While much of our previous guidance was in sync with the CDC, this guidance will serve to strengthen that connection.
Most area school districts adopted mask-optional plans earlier this month for the coming school year despite the CDC recommending masks in schools on July 27. At that time, the county was not recommending masking in line with the CDC, and officials said decisions were to be made by the individual districts.
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Those plans and a leaked July email between Damsker and a Middle Bucks Institute of Technology administrator also incensed some and made parents and others question Damsker, with some even calling for his job.
Posted online and said to be obtained through a Right to Know Law request, the school administrator asks Damsker about whether they should report new cases among children in its onsite daycare center.
A state mandate requires reporting all positive cases to the county health department, who in turn report those cases to the state Department of Health.
Damsker’s response was that the county was moving to an “influenza model, where we won’t be contact tracing or isolating cases in most situations anymore.”
“One easy way of handling this is not to have your parents report any COVID to you, anymore than they would influenza to you. That way you won’t know. If a kid is sick, you don’t ask why they are sick,” Damsker wrote.
The email drew complaints that Damsker was being diminutive toward the severity of the virus early last month and possibly advising misreporting coronavirus cases.
Monday’s letter states schools are required to report new coronavirus cases to the health department and said previous guidance “strongly encouraging,” instead of mandating, parents to report a COVID-19 diagnosis “impedes” reporting efforts.
The state guidance clearly says COVID cases “should be” reported to schools.
The letter also recommended several other changes to the county’s recommendations which were updated Tuesday afternoon.
School districts are still advised to require masks in K-12 schools, but the updated guidelines now include more specific information regarding contact tracing and other mitigation policies, according to the county.
Both the state and the county health departments will continue working with schools to collect as much information as possible on individuals diagnosed or exposed to the coronavirus in schools, according to the update.
The health departments and schools should follow CDC guidelines defining a “close contact” in K-12 schools.
In general, a student sitting within three to six feet of an infected student is excluded from being considered a close contact if both students were properly masked in an school that was implementing other mitigation efforts, such as physically distancing students and increased ventilation.
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The guidelines maintain a previous three-foot social distancing recommendation.
Other mitigation strategies recommended include screening tests, quarantining and isolation for potential symptoms and regular cleaning of commonly used areas.
Parents are urged to report their child’s COVID-19 diagnosis to schools, which are required to report new cases to the county.
The new guidance also recommends a slightly longer quarantine or isolation period to the county’s previous recommendations for potentially sick individuals.
“Whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, any individual who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days as both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals can transmit the virus during that time,” the county news release states.
School districts are not required to adopt any recommendation by the county in their state mandated health and safety plans.
Check back for more on this developing story.