Washington Evening Journal
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Jefferson and Washington County Public Health Director Chris Estle said she planned to respectfully decline any requests for input from area school boards at a Washington County Board of Health meeting Thursday.
“One of the school boards in Jefferson let me attend their meeting Monday, and I’m not going to engage,” Estle said. “It’s not a local public health decision.”
Estle said her most neutral option was to endorse CDC guidelines, but not to get directly involved in the policy discussions.
“The guidance has not changed, I continue to recommend CDC guidance which does include wearing of a mask,” she said. “I understand they can’t mandate that at school, but if the kid wants to wear it, teacher wants to wear it, it’s still appropriate … This is a school board decision. Local public health has nothing to do with this decision.”
While the policy would have public health implications, Estle defended her non-involvement as a means of avoiding a politically charged matter she felt was beyond her authority.
“I don’t need to go as local public health and have more drama and more angst and be involved in something that does not pertain to me as a decision-making process,” she said. “I will fight all day long to be an advocate if it’s a fight for me or my department, but if it’s not directly involving me, I’m not going to battle that out.”
Estle later added that separation of that decision-making power was important to balance responsibility for the outcomes of any school district action.
“The school board, they will be the ones that, if something gets changed and then there becomes a funding issue, that will impact them and their decision, not me,” she said. “You’re not going to recoup funds from local public health.”
Board of Health member Jack Seward Jr., who is also on the Washington County Board of Supervisors, went a step further, saying the department should make a low-involvement, catchall statement regarding COVID-19 policies.
“I have always thought that the Board of Health should have a public statement about what we believe and how things should be done,” he said. “If you’re sick, stay home. If you feel you’re at risk, wear a mask. If you can get vaccinated, do, but the decision to be vaccinated ought to be between your doctor and yourself. As simple as those four or five things, and that would cover it.”
While a statement to that effect was drafted and published early in the pandemic, Seward said the department should stick to it more closely.
“There have also been communications between the Department of Health, through their spokespeople with other school boards, for example, that went farther than that,” he said. “And that’s where the issue comes. I just think that if we stick to that and no other information goes, (it’s) what you said: that decision is up to the school board.”