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Community forum outlines school reopening options

Pictured are Lisa Barone from Brooks Hospital; Julie Lawrie, a nurse at Dunkirk Middle School; and Nichole Dispense, a nurse at School No. 7.

The Dunkirk Central School District held a community forum this week to educate and inform district residents about the risks of COVID-19, in regards to reopening to students.

The panel included Lisa Barone, director of infection control and employee health at Brooks Memorial Hospital; Nichole Dispense, School No. 7 nurse; and Julie Lawrie, a nurse at Dunkirk Middle School.

The forum lasted an hour and a half, and featured questions from people in the community.

Barone led off, stating that fact must be separated from fiction and that as long as quality protocols are put in place, school can be a safe place for kids and staff to return to.

“It’s hard to know what’s true, and what’s fact, and what to believe,” Barone said. “The protocols we’ve put in place do work. We have not had, at the hospital, any transmission from patient to patient, or from staff to patient, or patient to staff. I do believe if there are protocols in place and they are followed, that it can be safe for students and teachers.”

Barone said basic mask protocols still need to be followed, and reiterated that it takes 10 minutes of close contact to spread COVID-19, meaning there’s little need for worry for walking by someone who is positive in the hallway.

“I told you that masks and handwashing work, so people say, ‘Why are there so many cases in our community?'” Barone said. “It’s winter, people are gathering inside, they’re doing things together because they’re afraid to go out to other places. We think that people we’re friends with are safe and clean but we don’t ever really know what people are doing when they aren’t with us.”

Though Barone said it would be easy to blame going back to work for the rise in COVID-19 cases in Chautauqua County, the reasons for increased cases can be much more innocuous than that.

“Have you watched a Bills game with any friends?” Barone said. “Have you been out to dinner? Have you gotten gas and not washed your hands after? Do you clean your cell phones? If you think about it, every time you pick up your phone, these are some of the reasons COVID spreads and spreads so quickly. So unless you never leave your house, no one ever comes in, you will always have a risk of getting COVID…If you take your kid to Walmart, you should have no problem taking them to school. “

Barone cautioned against masks that have an external valve, while they are still somewhat protective for the person wearing them, but the air comes out through the valve and can still be a larger risk for others. Barone also said that a face shield with no mask is still not approved, because it allows air to release underneath. Gloves are another thing that, while they do protect the person wearing them, they do still spread the virus all around unless they are sanitized.

With everyone back in school, Barone often receives the question, “What if one of the kids touches me, or I have to touch a child?” To that she has one answer: Wash your hands.

“We touch people at the hospital all the time without gloves on,” Barone said. “We always wash our hands after.”

Barone went on to speak about the COVID-19 vaccine, which is available at Brooks Hospital, to anyone in groups 1a and 1b of the vaccine rollout, though there are problems with availability.

“Unfortunately there isn’t enough for everyone because anyone in New York state can come to Brooks to receive it,” Barone said. “We are always trying to get more vaccines, but my recommendation is don’t wait to get it local. If you can get it anywhere, get it where you can.”

Lawrie then read a statement from the Dunkirk Central School District to answer questions specific to the school setting.

“We have been meeting with our school medical director, Dr. Thomas McTernan, on a regular basis since August,” Lawrie said. “His stance on COVID-19 has remained the same throughout the pandemic. He believes it is not spreading within the school setting, based on his experience and evidence from the CDC. He believes that children need to be in school, and is advocating for the board of education and the district to resume in-person instruction.”

“We the district nurses are in agreement and believe students benefit from in person learning,” Lawrie said. “We are confident in the safety measures the district has implemented and in our ability to contact trace within the school setting. Since September, we have not witnessed any evidence of COVID-19 spreading within the school. … Our concern is that if the district remains in a remote state of education, our students will suffer both academically and socially.”

The school nurses confirm any positive case with the county Health Department, then the nurses contact the parent or staff member for contact tracing, from which the county Health Department continues the investigation.

The district’s budget workshop is set for Tuesday, Jan. 26, and the school will receive multiple reports on budget. The full community forum can be viewed on the Dunkirk City School District Facebook page.

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