Bucks tweaks COVID guidance to schools following outcry over health commissioner’s emails

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Kindergarteners wear face masks while sitting in a classroom

Kindergarten students wear face masks and are seated at proper physical distancing spacing during a math lesson. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Updated: 7:30 p.m.

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Bucks County has updated its COVID-19 guidance for public schools as cases climb, and after days of public outcry over correspondence between the head of the county’s health department and school administrators and staff.

The emails from Bucks County Health Commissioner Dr. David Damsker have been shared widely on social media since last week, in which Damsker contradicts state and federal guidance about reporting positive cases.

In one email sent on July 10, Damsker advised Kathryn Strouse, the administrative director of the Middle Bucks Institute for Technology, to have parents not report positive COVID-19 cases to the school’s day care facility.

The day care is obligated to follow guidelines set by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, which say day cares must report positive COVID-19 cases to the Bucks County Health Department.

Strouse wrote to Damsker, questioning the conflict between the state and county policies.

Damsker responded, “One easy way of handling this is not to have your parents report COVID to you, any more than they would report influenza to you. That way you won’t know. If a kid is sick normally, you won’t ask why they are sick.”

In its new guidance, the Bucks County Health Department is now suggesting that parents report positive cases to schools, and that the schools will contact the students’ classmates’ families to inform them. The department will not conduct contact tracing in schools, and will “focus its limited resources by contact tracing in the highest-risk settings that include congregate care facilities, corrections, and nursing homes.”

But as the first day of the new school year gets closer and COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the county, the emails have added fuel to an already heated debate over pandemic safety plans in Bucks County schools.

Several parents and doctors told WHYY News they think Damsker is misleading residents. He has also advised school districts in ways that contradict guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend universal masking in K-12 schools. Damsker has recommended a mask-optional approach.

And as some Bucks County school districts, like Council Rock, plan to follow Damsker’s guidance, some parents are outraged.

“I’m very livid, and I am also just in disbelief,” said one Council Rock School District parent, Bill Lynch.

“[They’re] asking us to follow them into their land of make-believe where COVID is behind us. And unfortunately it is not behind us,” he said. “I refuse to believe that we can operate as we did prior to COVID at this time.”

Damsker did not respond to a request for comment. He has previously acknowledged that he has disagreed with the CDC.

The Commissioners Office said in a statement that the Bucks County Health Department’s advice has changed since Damsker’s email to Strouse, because of the changing COVID climate and “the input of the county commissioners.”

Some parents point to other instances in which Damsker appears to downplay the impacts of COVID-19 on children, and in some cases citing false statistics about the number of cases.

In a March interview with the Bucks County Courier Times, Damsker said “children are barely affected by this disease,” and that “It’s worse to get flu than it is to get COVID.” Again on July 25, in another email sent to school leaders across the county, Damsker wrote, “No children have been seriously ill [with COVID-19] so far, and their cases continue to be mild or asymptomatic.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 children under 17 from Bucks County have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

That number excludes cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, which can affect young people who have had or been exposed to someone with COVID-19. According to the CDC, cases of MIS-C are rising across the country, with more than 2,000 cases as of Feb. 1, 3,000 as of April 1, and 4,000 as of June 2. At least 100 cases have been reported in Pennsylvania.

Damsker has also recommended making masks optional for students, teachers, and staff in Bucks County schools this fall, which was met with strong opposition from a group of parents and local pediatricians, especially in the Central Bucks School District.

The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend indoor masking for everyone over the age of 2 at K-12 schools, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or not.

One doctor in Bucks County described Damsker’s guidance as “medical negligence.” WHYY News agreed to withhold the person’s name because they fear retribution from the ReOpen Bucks group, which opposes mask mandates.

The local doctor said Damsker is “trying to make people feel that there are no kids in Bucks County who’ve actually been really sick from COVID, which is a complete lie, and trying to make people really not look into that because it fits his agenda.”

Page Davis lives in Doylestown, which is in the Central Bucks School District. Her son was diagnosed with MIS-C after she tested positive for COVID-19 in February.

After Doylestown Hospital could not diagnose her son, Davis said he was taken in an ambulance to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her son had a high fever, wasn’t eating or sleeping, and at one point, lost control of his bodily functions, forced to wear a diaper at age 6.

Six months later, his health has improved, but Davis is concerned about her district’s optional masking policy. She isn’t sure if her son’s MIS-C will flare up again if he comes in contact with another person with COVID-19 and unanswered questions about her son’s diagnosis are hanging over her head as September looms.

“It’s just traumatizing for the kids and us. We don’t know the long-term implications of this. Like, is he going to have to deal with this for the rest of his life? That’s the scary part … We don’t know,” she said.

To help reduce the risk, she plans to have both of her kids wear masks in school. But without a mask requirement in the Central Bucks School District, she worries her kids will just take them off.

“They’re not going to want to be different than other kids,” said Davis. “I’m not there to make sure they have it on all the time, and to be honest with you, as a teacher, you can only do so much.”

The heated debates over school safety plans across Bucks County come alongside rising COVID-19 cases.

According to the state, the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in Bucks County has risen from 11 per day on July 10 to 87 per day on Aug. 14. Unvaccinated people are at a high risk of contracting the virus.

The Council Rock School District in Bucks County is still falling in line with Damsker’s original guidance. In an email last week, Christine Taylor, human resources director for Council Rock School District, told district staff to not report positive cases to their schools.

Taylor wrote, “If you or someone you know in the district is symptomatic, tests positive, or is exposed to COVID, you do not need to report this information. Instead, this will be treated in the same manner that we treat other illnesses, such as the flu.”

One Council Rock teacher said she’s uncomfortable with the district’s safety plan. WHYY News agreed to withhold her name because she fears retaliation from the ReOpen Bucks group, and retribution from district leaders.

“The no contact tracing, I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, and we’re not going to see until we’re down the road,” she said.

“It’s like building a plane while you’re taking off. There’s so many unknowns ahead and we’re leaving the ground, we’re committing to full-on kids in school, and once we’re moving, you can’t go back and make changes.”

She feels like the district is not considering the collective safety of the community.

“Our school districts, under a normal year, used to call a snow day just at the suggestion that snow might happen. They would say, ‘It’s just to be cautious, we don’t want anyone getting hurt.’ Well that same attitude of just being cautious has been just thrown out the window.”

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