How a Covid Emergency Is Handled, Central Bucks School District Style

Fact: Covid is raging in Bucks County, with a 45 percent increase in cases over the previous two weeks.

Fact: Many cases are in Central Bucks School District.

Fact: Doylestown Health is overwhelmed with cases, and staff shortages; it cannot handle individuals admitted for other medical issues.

One Week in Bucks County, January 10 – 14

A letter on Jan. 14 from Doylestown Health hospital to Bucks County School District, signed by president and chief medical officer. “I would strongly encourage the Central Bucks Schools to take reasonable steps to assure that transmissions of virus within the schools is mitigated, and that actively infected children do not return to class until there is reasonable likelihood that the individual is no longer actively infected and thus likely to infect others.”

The letter said that children usually suffered mild symptoms, even no symptoms. The risk: ease of transmission to others, especially the elderly or those with diabetes or other conditions. In the interest of community health, try to keep school infection at a minimum.

Doylestown Health - Bucks County Beacon - How a Covid Emergency Is Handled, Central Bucks School District Style

Well! You might as well have tossed a match into a can of water.

Because the Central Bucks School District has no intention of doing anything. Did anyone think, polio! Which side are you on? No. But Covid has a political divide, at least in Bucks County, where the response is dictated more by politics than medical information. Perhaps ginned up by the Republican Party.

This was a busy week, because Dr. David Damsker, head of the Bucks County Department of Health, who seems to have been hiding undeground like a prairie dog through the fall, turned up Jan. 13 at the Board of Heath meeting to answer questions.

Both the Central Bucks School Board – more about that shortly – and the Pennridge School District wanted clarification about CDC rules and contact tracing. Was his health department doing contact tracing if students had contact with anyone outside of their family? On that, Damsker was clear.

No.  “Right now, we’re tracing for outbreaks or bigger things. It’s not designed for chronic, common diseases like COVID is now,” Damsker told the board, awkwardly. Bigger than Covid?

Dr. Damsker then made it clear that the county health department did not endorse the language in school districts about quarantine or wearing masks, no matter what they said. So that’s settled! Forget the Bucks County Dept. of Health.

Let’s look at Central Bucks, and see why logic and medical science do not apply. Elections have consequences. One consequence was that three Republican candidates who were backed by Back2SchoolPA won seats on the school board. Back2SchoolPA’s founding idea is that kids should be in school, no matter what. Even if covid 19’s new strain, omicron, is running rampant.

Central Bucks Covid numbers - Bucks County Beacon - How a Covid Emergency Is Handled, Central Bucks School District Style
Central Bucks own tabulation, which does not count previous cases still in quarantine; includes teachers and students

The newly elected board has six Republicans and three Democratics. You will see how that six-three divide plays out. And how divisive masks and covid remain.

Central Bucks School District manages 20,000 students, bigger than some cities. It is the second largest employer in Bucks County. This school board meeting began with some people commenting about getting along. Then Donna Shannon from Doylestown complained that school employees should not share their fear of covid with students, or “push that fear onto the kids.” Eventually she suggested that children could avoid becoming ill with Covid if they improved their physical condition by, for instance, losing weight, “since that’s the biggest comorbidity.” She urged teachers not to “Inform students of their bedroom practices.”   

A father from Chalfont turned his three minutes over to his daughter, Mara Witsen, who argued impressively if not factually that covid should be treated just like any other respiratory virus. She quoted Dr. Walensky of the CDC as saying that the vaccine “will not prevent the spread.” Her message was “Let’s get back to normal.” As if the world had not changed with covid-19.

This was the warm-up to the meeting. Clearly the school district is split on Covid and how to handle the return to school. So when the recently elected Dr. Miriam Mahmud meekly raised a small point, almost a bookkeeper’s correction to the district’s health and safety policy, it raised red flags because it was about Covid.

Mahmud at the board meeting - Bucks County Beacon - How a Covid Emergency Is Handled, Central Bucks School District Style
Central Bucks School Board meeting, January 12, Miriam Mahmud, far right

All she was saying was that the plan claimed to be “per the recommendation of the CDC and both the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Bucks County Health Department.” She pointed out that it wasn’t.

It was a technicality. Her point was that “you can’t just make these things up,” so why not follow the actual recommendations, which required wearing a mask for the five days after quarantine, among other things. But masks. OMG. The very word was anathema in the Central Bucks School Distict.

Miriam Mahmud - Bucks County Beacon - How a Covid Emergency Is Handled, Central Bucks School District Style
Dr. Miriam Mahmud

The board voted her down, six to three. Bucks County School District would make up its own rules and call them what they wanted: infected students would spend five days out. And then back to school, no mask. So be it.

The whole point seemed to be, dare we say, Back2SchoolPA. Get as many kids into chairs in classrooms as possible. No masks.

Another Democrat on the board, Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo, then proposed stripping out the language that said it was per the recommendation of the CDC etc. That was an even quicker vote. Six-three. No.

Mark Twain once said, “You can’t argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their own level.”

So be it with the Bucks County School District. They say the health department does contract tracing; it doesn’t. They say they are following CDC guidelines; they are not. As for the plea from Doylestown Health, you notice the language has “soft” words like “reasonable” and “assure.” Central Bucks can “reasonably assure” Doylestown Health that it is taking “reasonable steps to assure” that covid is under control.

The question is, how much public humiliation can the Central Bucks School Board take when their failure to deal with covid 19 is exposed? Or are they immune to outside scrutiny?

The next school board meeting is February 8.

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Linda Lee

A former editor and reporter at The New York Times, Linda Lee has written seven books, and started a magazine about real estate and design in Miami. While her interest lies in Bucks County, her family lives near Harrisburg. She has a Shih Tzu named Yolo.