Students' mental health needs amid pandemic prioritized; Fla. district bans excused absences for COVID concerns: Live updates

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Reopening schools is a start, but every student in America should have access to mental health professionals after two years of grappling with the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday.

Cardona said it's incumbent on school districts to use American Rescue Plan funding to hire mental health staff. One of President Joe Biden's campaign promises was to double the number of school counselors, social workers and mental health professionals in schools. But Cardona's speech was light on details of how schools are to ramp up mental health support and personnel amid the national staffing crisis.

American Rescue Plan funding, critics suggested, isn't enough.

"Our school leaders continue to burn the candle at both ends," said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in a statement responding to Cardona's address. "Without immediate action to address their staffing shortages and concerns about teacher and student wellness and well-being, it will be extremely challenging to make sure these proposals actually provide the real support our communities need and deserve."

Cardona's vision also includes a push for increased participation in extracurricular activities, access to intensive tutoring and student loan reform. The department has forgiven about $15 billion in student loan debt since Biden took office. The federal government has paused payments on federal student loans since the start of the pandemic. They’re expected to resume in May.

Chris Quintana and Alia Wong

Also in the news:

►Even as the more contagious but less virulent omicron variant recedes across much of the U.S., it's leaving a notable imprint: The 18.4 million infections tallied in the country so far in January represent one-fourth of the 73.2 million during the entire pandemic.

►Current and former staffers described a "toxic atmosphere'' at the World Health Organization in the Western Pacific and accused its director, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, of racist, unethical and abusive behavior, the Associated Press reported.

►Washington, D.C., has extended its indoor mask mandate for public settings by a month, now set to expire Feb. 28.

►The European Medicines Agency recommended that Pfizer’s coronavirus antiviral drug Paxlovid be authorized for use in the 27-nation European Union, the first time the agency has endorsed a pill for treating COVID-19.

►People who had slight changes in their menstrual cycle after getting the COVID-19 vaccine only experienced those changes for a brief time, as a new study "reassures" there is little risk in fertile individuals getting inoculated.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 73 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 878,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 365 million cases and over 5.6 million deaths. More than 211 million Americans – 63.6% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we're reading: Many people with disabilities have yet to return to airports as they try to protect themselves from a coronavirus infection that could either feel like a rough bout of flu or take their lives.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Florida school district won't excuse students over COVID concerns

The school district in Orange County, Florida, said its 209,000 students will no longer be allowed to get an excused absence for failing to attend school out of concern about increased coronavirus infections.

The district, with more than 200 schools in the Orlando area, said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the policy goes into effect Monday.

"The number of cases has continued to decline, and we continue to require face masks for adults and strongly encourage them for students,'' the announcement said. "It is also an additional strain on our teachers as they continue to manage assignments for large numbers of absent students.''

The Orange County Public Schools website reports 19,548 infections on campuses since Aug. 2, more than 15,000 of them among students.

The district encourages parents to keep their kids at home if they have symptoms of illness, and offers home schooling as an option for those who don't want their children to attend classes in person out of caution about COVID.

Sarah Palin, infected with virus for second time, still out dining in NYC

Sarah Palin has been exposed to the coronavirus enough times to get infected twice. Now she's exposing others to the virus.

The former Republican vice presidential candidate was seen dining in a Manhattan restaurant Wednesday, two days after her trial in a lawsuit against the New York Times was postponed because she tested positive for a second time.

CDC guidelines call for people to isolate themselves for at least five days after the onset of symptoms or a positive test.

Palin, who has publicly said she won’t get the COVID-19 shot, also flouted New York City rules Saturday when she dined indoors at the same eatery, Elio's, despite not being vaccinated. The restaurant said it made a mistake in not checking Palin's vaccination status. On Wednesday, she ate at a heated outdoors section that did not require patrons to be vaccinated.

Less than half of Americans think booster shots are essential, poll shows

Only 59% of Americans think it’s essential they be vaccinated against the coronavirus to feel safe at public activities, according to a new poll. And although boosters provide significantly better protection than a two-shot treatment of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, just 47% of Americans think it’s essential they get boosted.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also underscores what authorities call alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11. Just 37% of parents consider it essential that their children are vaccinated.

In Minneapolis, 36-year-old public health researcher Colin Planalp faults health authorities for not making the importance of vaccinating kids more clear to the public. Planalp said he got his 6-year-old son vaccinated as soon as he could.

“Kids can get really sick from COVID,” he says.

World travelers beware: Booster shot may soon be required

A growing number of global destinations are putting a cap on how long travelers can get by with a one- or two-dose vaccination series. Without the booster, vacationers could find themselves facing additional entry requirements, unable to access certain venues or denied entry entirely. Starting Tuesday, U.S. travelers to Spain who had the last dose of their initial one- or two-dose vaccination series 270 days or more before entry will need to show proof of receiving a booster vaccination. Health experts are expecting such requirements to become more widespread as countries crack down on the spread of COVID-19.

"We know that being boosted gives you much better protection, both against illness and serious illness. So it's not surprising," said David Weber, a professor of medicine, pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I think this will be an ongoing trend for countries that want to limit transmission."

Bailey Schulz

Moderna booster shot focuses on omicron

Moderna announced Wednesday that its first participant had been dosed with the company's booster shot that is specifically targeting the omicron variant. The news comes a day after Pfizer and BioNTech announced plans of their own. Booster shots of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have proved 90% effective at preventing omicron-related hospitalizations, according to data from the CDC.

Moderna's study will include two cohorts: participants who previously received both doses of the Moderna vaccine, with the second dose being at least six months ago, and participants who have received the two initial doses as well as a Moderna booster at least three months ago.

Jewish advocacy groups condemn mandate comparisons to Holocaust

Thursday marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany's Auschwitz concentration camp. Days prior to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, intended to honor the 6 million Jews and other victims of the Holocaust, anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said it was easier to live in Hitler’s Germany than today’s world with COVID-19 mandates.

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” he said at a Washington, D.C., anti-vaccine rally Sunday. “Today, the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run. And none of us can hide.”

Jewish advocacy and Holocaust awareness organizations jumped to condemn Kennedy’s words, for which he later apologized. The Auschwitz Memorial called his comparisons a “sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay.” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said his comments are “deeply inaccurate, deeply offensive and deeply troubling.”

“Those who carelessly invoke Anne Frank, the star badge, and the Nuremberg Trials exploit history and the consequences of hate,” the U.S. Holocaust Museum wrote.

Kennedy’s comparisons of COVID-19 mandates to Nazi Germany are only one of many made by prominent people, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and FOX commentator Tucker Carlson, over the last two years.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reopening schools not enough; mental health help needed: COVID news.

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