Buffalo Schools would push back on state if social distancing changes to 3 feet

Superintendent Kriner Cash: "I don't buy that"
Frank Sedita Academy in Buffalo. February 1, 2021
Frank Sedita Academy in Buffalo. February 1, 2021 Photo credit WBEN/Mike Baggerman

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) - Expect Buffalo Public Schools to push back on the New York State Health Department if social distancing is no longer defined as six feet.

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker told lawmakers in Albany last week the social distancing guidelines could be revised as soon as this week.

"I know there's some discussion about three feet... we are working on that," Zucker said last Thursday. "We want to get these children back in to school so I hope we can get this done... Let's hope we can figure out something next week. I can't commit to a day."

But Superintendent Kriner Cash said he doesn't buy that three feet is appropriate for social distancing.

"Three feet is essentially regular, that's normal," Cash said. "That's the way you sit when you're in school during non-COVID times. That's what that is. I don't see how you can do that and stay safe given all the different issues that we have as people. Where we've been, what they say about coughing, what they say about distance, germs and spittle and how far it travels. I'd have to see who's buying that. That doesn't seem scientific to me."

Cash said he will only follow the scientists and health experts who are studying this issue, specifically highlighting Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,  and Dr. Dennis Kuo, the Medical Director at Buffalo Public Schools.

"(If) they give me the scientific evidence for that, then we'll look at that," Cash said.

He said he's not prepared currently to bring kids back to school under three-feet of social distancing.

The next phase of students at Buffalo Schools are likely to return to the classroom under hybrid learning on March 15. This includes grades 3, 4, 9, and all high-needs students. Cash said phase 3 of students will be fifth and sixth graders, phase 4 will be seventh and eighth graders, and the final phase is the remaining students. He estimated each phase will be two or three weeks apart. However, if social distancing requirements are lessened and the New York State Education Department follows the new guidelines, it will put more pressure on the district to bring more students back.

Cash also said that there haven't been enough people who are vaccinated and expressed concerns about medically fragile communities, like School 84. There is also concern for staff members.

"If you take masking and social distancing away, and then no testing, because we don't seem to be testing anymore, at least there's no requirement to do it, now you have no guardrails at all for this disease that not only is out here and among us, clearly, but that we have variants growing rapidly that some say are even more dangerous than COVID-19," Cash said. "I think you have to stay very, very cautious until a much, much greater percentage of the population is vaccinated and we learn more about these emerging variants. I'm going to err on the side of complete safety."

Buffalo School Board member Larry Scott also shared concerns about the idea of three feet of separation.

"Our class sizes are large," Scott said. "Our classroom sizes and space in those classrooms are tight. I'm personally not comfortable yet with letting go of that six feet of distancing. Could we be there towards the end of the school year? Hopefully. If the numbers continue to trend downward and we continue to see safe, responsible, transition of our students in school, I think it's absolutely possible that we could reach that by the end of the school year. To begin it next week is too early and irresponsible."