ReOpen Bucks, a grassroots group of parents in Bucks County who pushed for more in-person schooling during the height of the pandemic, believe they continue to amass a circumstantial case showing county commissioners sidestepped the county’s health director when it nixed a Covid policy that would have been more permissive to in-person schooling.
ReOpen Bucks believes the upshot of the case it continues to assemble through documents obtained by the state Right to Know Law shows that carefully prescribed separations of powers may have been erased unethically, and that local political autonomy was sacrificed for the sake of political alliances and expediency.
The timeline begins on Aug. 15, 2021, when Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker issued new guidance for the upcoming school year that gave wide latitude to individual districts. The guidance outlined a “mask optional” policy, and supporting “any school district efforts to socially distance when feasible, while still prioritizing the importance of in-person instruction.”
“Thankfully, all available evidence in Bucks County — and elsewhere — indicates that while serious illness in children with COVID-19 is possible, it is very rare,” the Bucks County memo said. “There is also clear consensus that students learn best while in school, and there is no substitute for the advantages that in-person learning provides.”
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Also of note, Damsker and the county said on different occasions that by creating a wider policy at the top of the government chain in Bucks, individual school districts within the county could implement more stringent regulations if they wished.
Yet one week later on Aug. 23, then-Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam publicly released a letter she sent to the county that day in which she rebuked the county’s less restrictive model. By the next day, the county did an about-face, jettisoning Damsker’s guidance.
ReOpen Bucks believes the two Democratic members who form the majority on the county council made those decisions without Damsker in violation of the powers vested exclusively to him. One way to think about this power dynamic would be that of president to attorney general. Although the attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president, he or she may also act completely independently of or contrary to the president’s wishes.
“Under the Local Health Administration Law and the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955, only the county health director has the ability to address disease control issues in schools in counties, like Bucks, that have a health department,” said attorney Chadwick Schneee. Although Schnee is not part of ReOpen Bucks, he has worked on several Right to Know court cases brought by Jamie Walker, one of the group’s leaders.
“If Dr. Damsker did not sign off on this guidance, then this is really an example of the County Commissioners usurping Dr. Damsker’s statutory powers,” Schnee concluded.
Walker provided documents to Broad + Liberty which show that the Bucks County Intermediate Unit — a government entity that provides umbrella-like economies of scale and other services to the numerous, smaller school districts in its jurisdiction — was holding county-wide meetings with county school districts within an hour of the Beam letter being delivered to the county.
The state department of health first contacted Bucks County about the Beam letter at 10:09 a.m. on the 23rd. That communication, however, did not deliver the letter, but only asked for a phone conversation about the letter.
The DOH then sent its letter to the county at 1:23 p.m.
On the same day, Bucks County Intermediate Unit Executive Director Mark Hoffman sent an email to area school superintendents requesting an “urgent” meeting for that afternoon. Hoffman’s letter is sent at 1:17 — six minutes before the DOH conveyed its letter to the county by email.
ReOpen Bucks alleges this shows BCIU somehow had advance knowledge of the developments, whether from county officials or DOH.
There is also clear consensus that students learn best while in school, and there is no substitute for the advantages that in-person learning provides.
One other email, circulated within the BCIU, shows that the BCIU was hard at work “REVISING PROCESSES” on its Covid procedures. (emphasis original). That email was at 11:29 a.m. Again, ReOpen Bucks alleges this adds to the proof that the BCIU had advance knowledge of what was coming down the pike from the DOH to the county.
Finally, an email from Hoffman at 10 p.m. that evening talks about how Commissioner Marseglia met with superintendents. Damsker isn’t mentioned as participating. ReOpen Bucks alleges this additional proof that Damsker was cut out of the decision making.
“So the timing shows that Hoff, Dr. Hoffman absolutely knew that this letter was coming,” Walker said. “If he didn’t know, why would he call the superintendents to an urgent meeting without our health director? He [Damsker] was totally cut out of it.”
Hoffman denies that he or the BCIU was looped in early at all.
“The Bucks IU did not have advance knowledge of any updates to the Bucks County COVID guidance on August 23rd,” he said in an email to Broad + Liberty. “I sent an invitation to the county superintendents for the meeting with the County after being requested to do so by the County. I have no knowledge of when the County received any communications from any other agency. I learned about the updates to the County’s COVID guidance at the same time as the county’s superintendents during the Zoom meeting requested by the County.”
Not only was Damsker apparently absent from the Zoom conference between the county and local superintendents on the evening of the 23rd, but other local officials raised the question as to whether he even could have been on duty in any meaningful sense.
In a Council Rock School Board meeting days later on Aug. 26, several school board members raised the issue of whether Damsker had been on vacation when the policy flip occurred.
“I feel like we’re repeating it again, that he [Damsker] comes out with some guidance — and I’m like ‘Good! We can do this!” said Council Rock school board member Joseph Hidalgo.
“And then, all of a sudden, six area hospitals get together on the calls, and then we’re getting the department of health at the state level coming down and affecting — you know, basically writing articles and demoralizing this guy,” Hidalgo said.
In response to questions posed by Broad + Liberty, a spokesperson for Bucks County only provided a statement Damsker authored one year after the policy flip, when the controversy over the policy flip flared up in National Review, one of the preeminent conservative magazines in the country.
In the 377-word statement, Damsker seems hard pressed to restrain his resentment at having been bigfooted by the state, and even seems to hint that the state may have threatened the county’s funding.
“In addition to having to follow certain regulations, we have a strong working relationship with — and receive a great deal of funding from — our state department of health,” Damsker said in the statement. “Between the Secretary’s letter and the similar request made by local hospitals a few days prior, the County had to make a change. Without those two factors, our Aug. 15 guidance would have stood.”
Damsker’s statement is published in full at the end of this article. The Pennsylvania Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Damsker had been a frequent guest on local radio and television, he has essentially gone into a media silence since the Beam letter.
Although Walker has clashed frequently with the Bucks County Commissioners and is critical of their actions for the policy flip, in this particular instance she is reserving her greatest ire for the state.
“I think they [Bucks County Commissioners] really did want to stand behind Dr. Damsker. First of all, he was right about everything. It’s not like he made a mistake or was wrong about anything. I just think the political pressure from the Democratic Party just got too much for our commissioners and they just felt like they had — it had to fold.”
Statement from Dr. David Damsker, August, 2022:
Government at every level — local, county, state, federal — is a collaborative effort where no decision is made in a vacuum, and while we don’t always agree, we do always act with the best interest of our community in mind. Guidance issued during COVID was no different. As a public health department, keeping people safe and healthy is our only goal, and we’re proud to have done exactly that throughout this pandemic.
Schools are opening next week normally, per the County’s guidance issued in May 2022. Our sole focus now, as it should be, is on the 2022–23 school year.
Other than perhaps vaccination, nothing during the COVID pandemic seemed to polarize our communities the way that school policy did. The Bucks County Health Department treated COVID like we would any novel communicable disease, by examining both the data collected around the world and the data we collected ourselves. With this information in hand, combined with the difficulties of virtual learning and social effects of isolation, our guidance always prioritized that children should attend school in-person.
No one in County administration, including the Commissioners, was happy with changing our school reopening guidance last-minute. However, a very publicly distributed letter from then-Secretary Alison Beam, the top health official in the state, simply could not be ignored. Receiving a letter like this was unprecedented in my tenure. There was also a complete lack of effort by the Secretary to communicate with me directly, instead sending the letter to reporters and the Commissioners. Obviously, the Secretary’s letter put the County in an impossible and very public position where no decision was going to please everyone.
In addition to having to follow certain regulations, we have a strong working relationship with — and receive a great deal of funding from — our state department of health. Between the Secretary’s letter and the similar request made by local hospitals a few days prior, the County had to make a change. Without those two factors, our Aug. 15 guidance would have stood. Again, we only issue guidance to schools, not mandates. Many schools chose to ignore the guidance we issued throughout the pandemic, which was their right.
Ultimately, our guidance shift was moot, because the statewide school masking mandate came down from the Secretary days later.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports