While schools across Erie County are preparing to reopen next week, the region’s largest school district is doubling down on its decision to remain closed amid the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Buffalo Public Schools, where all 32,000 students have been learning remotely since September, is eyeing a Feb. 1 return to in-person classes. That start date – the first day of the second semester – would only be for several thousand of its highest-need students.
All students in grades pre-K through 12 wouldn’t be phased in until mid-March.
Pressure has been mounting on the city school system to reopen for those who want to return, as parents see surrounding districts hold in-person instruction and wonder why not theirs. But Superintendent Kriner Cash has been adamant about remaining fully remote as the virus still rages in the community. He said the Board of Education would have to order him otherwise.
The district had planned to start reopening in phases sometime after Thanksgiving until cases started to spike.
“I’m not sending our children and our staff into the mouth of the volcano,” Cash told the school board Wednesday night. “You’re going to have to override me on that. Not going to do it.”
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School board members have had to explain to their constituents why the district has kept its doors closed this long, but the board put up little resistance to Cash’s recommendation to remain fully remote. In fact, Cash said he is prepared to defend his decision to the community, starting with a news conference on Thursday morning.
Cash said he has received feedback on the issue from “many, many, many” community leaders, as well as the district’s health advisory committee and Medical Director Dr. Dennis Kuo.
Kuo, a pediatrician and medical director of primary care services at Oishei Children’s Hospital, said if community spread is under control, and there is adequate tracing and capacity to test, then schools can reopen safely with the proper protocols.
But Kou said there’s “just way too much community spread right now.”
“I think as a community we need to understand just how much virus is out there,” Kuo told the school board during a virtual meeting. “It is a lot and it is uncontrolled. It is also predicted to get worse before it gets better.”
“What kind of numbers would be low enough?” asked At-Large Board Member Ann Rivera. “What are we looking for in terms of numbers of cases to feasibly bring back students into buildings?”
“I think the positivity rate needs to come down significantly,” said Kuo, noting the current rate of 7% to 8%. “I think that positivity rate needs to go well below 5%. That will give us an indication that we’re not seeing uncontrolled spread.”
The stance by Buffalo Public Schools to remain fully remote has been contrary to most other districts around the county. And its decision Wednesday comes more than a week after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made it easier to keep schools open by lowering the requirements for testing students, teachers and staff for the virus.
Relaxing those rules will allow schools across Erie County to reopen sooner, after being forced to switch to fully remote learning on Nov. 23 when the state designated much of the county an “orange zone" due to the high rate of infection in the community. Several suburban districts announced plans to reopen next week, while the private schools began reopening last week.
In fact, Cuomo’s decision signaled a shift in thinking on the virus in schools, as he pointed to data that showed infection rates are lower there than they are in the wider community, specifically among the younger students.
“To say that it doesn’t spread in schools, what does that mean? I don’t even understand what that means,” Cash said. “If it is raging and adults come to school, it’s going to come to schools.”
Nearly 400 children in Buffalo have tested positive for the virus since Nov. 1 and schools aren’t even open, Cash said. If schools in Buffalo were to try to reopen now, the superintendent speculated it wouldn’t take long to meet the threshold for closure – random testing that yields nine or more positive cases in any school.
Cash’s staff, meanwhile, went on at length during Wednesday’s meeting touting the district’s remote learning model. While not ideal, Cash said, the experience has not been nearly as bad as some are making it out to be.
But East District Board Member Kathy Evans-Brown noted how there has been a lot of chatter in the community about why the private, charter and suburban schools are open for in-person classes and Buffalo Public Schools are not.
Kuo said each district has to do what’s best for their students.
“I think it’s important for us to provide our children with the best consistent learning right now,” Kuo said.
“If schools try to open up, they’re just going to close again because there’s going to be too many sick parents and too many sick teachers,” Kuo said. “The last thing I want to do is ping pong back and forth and watch people get sick in the process.”
Even if it wanted to, Buffalo Public Schools couldn’t reopen right now because it doesn’t have the testing capability yet.
The district has signed an agreement with the Erie County Health Department to use its testing license and will order 4,200 tests from the state in preparation for that first month of reopening in February, said Darren Brown, the district’s chief of staff. The district is still planning to return those highest-need students for five days a week.
At-Large Board Member Larry Scott pressed for more details on plans to return the general population of students, but Cash said it’s still being determined what type of hybrid model would be best suited for Buffalo.
In the meantime, Brown said schools will begin surveying parents at the beginning of January to determine which students want to return to school. That will help officials figure out how many days of in-person learning they can provide to students at each grade level.