Last Saturday, I Zoomed into my first New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association (NJLBHA) meeting. The group focused on the critical topic of school re-openings during the COVID-19 pandemic. One member, a researcher and public health physician, presented the latest studies on school re-openings. Then we heard two opposite examples of how public health boards can be engaged in local decision making — or be shut out entirely.
In the first instance, the chair of a local board of health (BOH) shared how last spring he reached out to the chair of his local board of education (BOE) to discuss how to handle school safety during the pandemic. The two boards had not interacted in years. But the chair reached out because the State advises school re-opening committees to work closely with local health departments to develop plans that address health and safety. His outreach was well received, and the two boards discussed their goals and concerns. A school physician became a liaison to the BOH, connecting the two boards. They all agreed that transparency throughout the process would help build trust. The BOH and BOE held community forums, as well as forums just for teachers. The health board worked hand-in-hand with the education board and was available to address community and staff fears, explain the plans, and answer questions. The process worked well.
In another city in a neighboring county, the story was starkly different. In this case, the BOH was approached by a concerned mayor and asked to look at the proposed plan to reopen schools. The health leaders found the plan deficient. They put together suggestions and reached out to the Board of Education and the superintendent to share the suggestions and offered to work together to improve the plan. Their requests were rebuffed. So far there has been no dialogue between the public health leaders in the community and local education leaders on these critical health concerns.
I don’t have to tell you what community responded most effectively. I suspect most towns in our state fall somewhere in between these two. Building collaboration between local public health departments, boards and community leaders is as necessary today as it was in the early days of the pandemic. Local public health officials are objective and highly knowledgeable resources for communities — perhaps now more than ever. Local leaders can work arm in arm with them and gain the benefits of their advice.
We all want positive change to emerge from this pandemic. Here’s one great opportunity: Create stronger collaboration between local boards of health and community leaders. We can start strengthening these relationships right now. Local health leaders need our support. We can all push for more communities to be like the first example I learned about in my Saturday meeting.