How CBSD's Covid policy was driven by far-right groups
There's a reason our health and safety plan didn't prioritize health or safety
There’s a lot to talk about in CBSD, but first, let’s tackle the most urgent and obvious problem: Covid.
One person, Dr. David Damsker, the director of the Bucks County Department of Health (BCDOH), has been driving the Covid policies that many area school districts have been following. The problem is, Damsker doesn’t seem to think Covid is much of a problem.
Could that be because his wife is affiliated with several anti-masking groups? And what’s the deal with the CBSD school board members who consistently vote against Covid safety measures at schools?
How we got here: a skimmable timeline
If you haven’t been able to follow along closely, here’s a recap of how we got to where we are.
When drawing up their Covid health and safety plans, CBSD and several other area Bucks County school districts vow to follow guidance from the Bucks County Department of Health (BCDOH). On the surface, that seemed reasonable.
The person creating those policies at BCDOH is the county health director, Dr. David H. Damsker.
Damsker is married to Emily Schwarz, who appears to be affiliated with anti-mask groups in the county. (More on this below.)
Sometime during the spring or summer of 2020, ReOpen Bucks is formed by Josh Hogan. This group states on its website: We do NOT believe COVID to be a hoax. We believe it to be a particularly nasty cold, maybe 2-5 times more deadly than an average influenza.
Hogan writes multiple blog posts in support of Damsker.
Throughout the 2020-21 school year, Damsker downplays the seriousness of Covid, comparing it to the flu. In emails reported on by WHYY last summer, Damsker advised a director at Middle Bucks Institute for Technology on how to skirt reporting rules for the daycare facility. “One easy way of handling this is not to have your parents report COVID to you, any more than they would report influenza to you. That way you won’t know,” he wrote. “If a kid is sick normally, you won’t ask why they are sick.”
In early June 2021, citing a low # of cases, Damsker advises that masks should be optional in schools for the remainder of the school year. In a 4-3 vote, the CBSD school board votes to make masks optional for the last five days of school, even though the PA state mask mandate was still in effect until June 28.
On July 27, 2021, CDC releases updated guidance and a recommendation for everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission to wear a mask in public indoor places, even if they are fully vaccinated.
This is the current map (9/11/21):
On July 27 (yes, the same day as updated CDC guidance), a majority of Central Bucks school board members vote to approve a health and safety plan that contains practically no Covid-mitigation measures whatsoever.
In mid-August, Hogan’s ReOpen group starts a petition in support of Dr. Damsker. (The petition isn’t live anymore. There’s a reason for that, which we’ll get to in a minute.)
On Aug. 17, BCDOH issues a memo recommending that children wear masks in schools. The memo is released under Damsker’s signature and explains that the decision was made because area hospitals were concerned that Covid could impact pediatric ICU capacity.
ReOpen withdraws its support of Dr. Damsker, with Hogan writing a scathing blog post calling him a coward (so long, petition). Hogan also seems to have an astonishing amount of insight into the timelines of how the memo was released. He implies that Damsker was railroaded by the county commissioners.
On Aug. 23, Bucks County receives a smackdown from Alison Beam, the acting health secretary for PA. From The Inquirer:
On Monday evening, Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary rebuked Bucks County over its reopening advice, calling it “alarming” and warning the county commissioners in a letter that it could diminish the county’s ability to respond to coronavirus outbreaks and derail in-school instruction for students … In her letter to the county commissioners, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said aspects of the county’s Aug. 15 guidance “disregard evidence-based public health practices,” are not supported by scientific understanding of the virus, and are inconsistent with CDC and state recommendations for schools. Department of Health spokesperson Maggi Barton said no other counties have been sent letters like the one to Bucks.
A militia group plans an hours-long rally in the parking lot of the CBSD offices to coincide with the next school board meeting.
After a public outcry on social media, the rally is ultimately canceled.
On Aug. 24, despite their repeated vows to follow Dr. Damsker’s guidance on Covid, a majority of members of the CBSD school board vote to open schools on Aug. 30 with a mask-optional policy for all grades.
On Aug. 31, Gov. Wolf announces a mask mandate for all PA schools beginning on Sept. 7.
Later that day, a majority of members of the CBSD school board vote to adopt the mask mandate, but with one gaping loophole: Parents can request a mask exemption for their children without supplying any medical documentation.
Here is a 36-second clip from the end of the Aug. 31st board meeting, where you can hear board members directing parents how to use exemption forms to skirt the mask mandate. Board president Dana Hunter gavels out the meeting and, in answer to an off-mic question, states “They cannot impose it.” Leigh Vlasblom adds, “They can do an exemption.” Tracy Suits, who voted in favor of masks, attempts to clarify that teachers can ask students to wear masks but cannot force them to do so. The final voice seems to be Vlasblom, who states, “And the parents can fill out the exemption.”
Which school board members have consistently voted against Covid health and safety measures? There are five. They are:
Who is Dr. Damsker?
Oddly, it’s hard to find a resume or career summary for Dr. Damsker anywhere online. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you find one.) Some web sleuthing turns up the following:
Graduated from Medical College of Pennsylvania Hahnemann School of Medicine, now known as Drexel University College of Medicine, in 2000.
Graduated from Tulane University Preventive Medicine Residency Program in 2003.
His last position before coming to Bucks County was serving as the Community Health Medical Director, Wake County Human Services, Raleigh, NC.
Dr. Damsker was appointed to his post in Bucks County in 2008 and, at that time, received a salary of $165,000.
He is currently the highest-paid employee in Bucks County, receiving an annual salary of $220,943. (The second-highest salary in the county goes to District Attorney Matthew Weintraub at $185,665.)
There’s no evidence he has any experience as a practicing physician.
Who is Dr. Damsker’s wife?
While it may be hard to find info about Dr. Damsker online, his wife, Emily Schwarz, has a somewhat larger digital footprint.
Here’s what an article on WHYY originally had to say about Schwarz:
However, due to a misspelling in Schwarz’s name (no “t”), ReOpen groups began trolling the WHYY reporter, saying that no Emily Schwartz was affiliated with their group. The reference was removed.
But these screenshots shared by local reporter Cyril Mychalejko paint a different picture. (Follow him on Twitter @cmychalejko or subscribe to his substack.)
This is only the tip of the iceberg
Damsker’s connections to right-wing groups illustrate a larger problem: Organized, well-funded right-wing organizations are actively influencing and backing school board candidates in our area and across the state.
Which current board members have expressed problematic, racist views? Which current school board candidates have been endorsed by extremist groups? We’ll get to that in the next issue.
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