School Report Card: CDC says schools can reopen without vaccinating teachers, and refs weigh COVID-19 risks

Korin Miller
·11 min read
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that schools can safely reopen for in-person learning before teachers are vaccinated. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that schools can safely reopen for in-person learning before teachers are vaccinated. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

The head of the CDC says schools shouldn’t wait for teachers to be vaccinated to resume in-person learning

New CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters during a news briefing on Wednesday that schools can safely reopen for in-person learning before teachers are vaccinated.

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” she said. “Vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.”

It’s unclear whether Walensky’s comments will translate to actual policy. White House press secretary Jen Psaki later told reporters that the doctor’s remarks were not “official guidance.”

The CDC currently classifies teachers as “essential workers” and recommends that they be in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after health care workers and long-term care residents. But states create their own vaccine distribution plans. Some have prioritized teachers; others have not.

There has been a growing number of Change.org petitions requesting that state leaders prioritize educators and school staff to be vaccinated. One petition in Georgia, which has earned more than 5,000 signatures, called on Gov. Brian Kemp to “release COVID vaccines for educators now!”

“Students are not the best at keeping their nose/mouth covered, and we are in close proximity to them in the classrooms, while they’re all unmasked eating their lunch/snacks, and throughout our entire day,” wrote petitioner Beverly Shiotelis. “As educators, we do not have the ability to be shielded behind a plexiglass screen, we are literally FACE-TO-FACE with our students all day.”

A petition in Washington that has earned more than 7,000 signatures asks Gov. Jay Inslee to vaccinate teachers before reopening schools to in-person learning. “If the vaccination schedule remains the same and districts require more individuals to return to work, then we are risking the safety of everyone around them,” petitioner TJay Johnson writes. “If vaccinations are offered, the order to return to work becomes less likely to cause [undue] harm.”

There is “no such thing as opening schools ‘safely’ right now,” Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. But, he adds, “the more things you do to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the safer it is.”

Vaccinating staff along with enforcing mask-wearing policies, cleaning surfaces regularly and improving ventilation “all contribute to making schools safe,” Kleinman says. “To dismiss the vaccination of teachers would be missing an opportunity to make things safer,” he says.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has dropped tier cautionary levels from school sports — but officials are still nervous to resume play

The ruling body for most high school sports in the U.S. has removed tiered levels of risk from its guidance for school sports. The National Federation of State High School Associations issued the updated guidance on Tuesday.

A Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball official referees a game. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
A Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball official referees a game. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The new guidance removed the classification of high school sports as high-, medium- and low-risk and now suggests that state associations consider certain factors in determining the potential for COVID-19 transmission in high school sports. Those include:

  • Community infection rates

  • Proven cases of direct COVID-19 transmission during sports

  • Participants in non-contact sports have lower rates of infection than those in contact sports

  • Participants in outdoor sports have lower rates of infection than those in indoor sports

  • Using face masks for indoor sports creates similar COVID-19 transmission rates to those seen in outdoor sports

“As knowledge of the virus that causes COVID-19 has evolved, we have increasingly recognized that transmission depends upon multiple factors that cannot be easily accounted for by simply dividing sports into three distinct categories of risk,” the organization wrote in a news release.

But finding referees to oversee those sports may be a challenge. Schools across the country face shortages of officials, with some refs nervous about being exposed to the virus. One of them is Chuck Piebes, who has refereed football and lacrosse games for 42 years.

The 70-year-old officiates in New York’s Hudson Valley, where high school sports aren’t currently being played. Because Piebes’s sports typically take place in the fall and spring, he tells Yahoo Life, “I haven’t been on the field in almost a year and a half.”

Even if sports were to resume, Piebes says he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing his old job just yet. “My concern is for the safety of all of the participants involved — players, coaches and officials,” he says. “Right now, I don’t think we should be playing. The risk is not worth the reward.”

As a former three-sport athlete, Piebes says he sympathizes with the students. “It breaks my heart what these kids are going through,” he says. However, he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to referee again in the fall “if more people are vaccinated,” adding, “the vaccine is key to the whole thing.”

Las Vegas school system to reopen for in-person instruction after an uptick in students dying by suicide

Nevada’s Clark County School District, which includes students in Las Vegas, plans to begin to transition elementary school students back to in-person learning on March 1. The decision came after 18 students took their own lives after the pandemic started — double the number of suicides the district experienced in 2019.

The district shared a hybrid instructional model on its website on Wednesday, noting that pre-kindergarten through third-grade students would be invited to participate, with remote-only options continuing for families with students in those grades as well. Under the model, students will be divided into A and B cohorts, attending in-person learning for two days a week.

The district plans to transition more grade levels to a hybrid learning model but doesn’t currently have a timeline for it. In 2021, there have been 499 positive COVID-19 cases reported in the school district. Clark County has seen an average of 715 new daily cases of COVID-19 over the past 14-day period, according to Thursday data shared by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

“The Board acknowledged the difficulties of transitioning to a hybrid model of instruction during a time when local and national health data indicates concerning trends in COVID-19 positive cases,” the announcement of the hybrid model reads. “Trustees continued to express concern for the mental health crisis and the academic crisis associated with students in distance education and stressed the need for additional support in these areas.”

The district plans to have voluntary employee COVID-19 testing, improved HVAC strategies, “strict cleaning protocols and additional mental health support. Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara tells Yahoo Life, “Our students are suffering. I have spoken to families that have lost a young life. As superintendent and as a parent, to not do anything to help students would be irresponsible. Face-to-face instruction is a part of bringing some normalcy back into the lives of our kids.”

Licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life that the pandemic has highlighted that students get so much more out of school than just learning, including identity development, socialization, skill-building and self-esteem. “Now, the quarantines have stripped the full measure of all these critical life elements away,” he says. “This has created great hopelessness and angst in young people — the biggest fuel for suicide is hopelessness.”

But Kleinman says that schools need to be careful to balance mental health needs with physical safety. “All of this is challenging,” he says. “There is a potential for devastating consequences of both mental and physical health that arise. One has to balance the risk of one decision with the risk of another.”

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

A charter school in Utah says its HVAC system helps prevent the spread of COVID-19

Monticello Academy, a K-10 charter school with two campuses in Utah, is attributing its special HVAC system to its lack of COVID-19 cases.

“Monticello Academy schools are the only schools in Utah that continuously disinfect the air we breathe and every square inch of the school using state-of-the-art HVAC technology,” the school says in a Jan 15. Facebook post. “We have had ZERO known cases of COVID-19 spread within our school, and we have 1/6th the incidence of COVID-19 as the nearest district school.”

The school uses a system from RGF Environmental Group called the REME HALO total indoor air purification system, RGF shared on Facebook. The system works by actively cleaning the air in the school, filtering out pollutants and foreign particles, viruses, RGF says on its website.

But air filtration isn’t the only safety measure the school is relying on. According to the Monticello Academy Reopening Plan, masks are required for students and staff, and the school has reduced class sizes to increase physical distancing, is conducting increased sanitization, is discouraging students from sharing objects and has stopped using lockers to avoid students congregating. It is also providing hand sanitizer to students.

A spokesperson for Monticello Academy did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Kleinman says that enhanced air filtration systems are “one of a constellation of factors that can increase safety” in indoor spaces. But, he adds, these tools work best when combined with other COVID-19 safety measures like wearing masks, social distancing and good hand hygiene.

Southern California pediatricians call for schools to reopen ‘immediately’

A group of pediatricians in Southern California is urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen schools for in-person instruction as soon as possible.

The pediatricians, who are affiliated with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Southern California Chapter 2, said in a Wednesday press release that they are “dismayed” that students are “suffering” and “experiencing the negative impacts” of the lack of in-person schooling.

Southern California is coming down from a surge of COVID-19 cases, but new case counts remain high. Los Angeles County health officials reported 5,028 new cases on Thursday and 239 deaths. Nearly 5,000 people are currently hospitalized in the area due to COVID-19.

“As pediatricians, we’ve decided that enough is enough,” Dr. Alice Kuo, executive board member of the Southern California Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at UCLA, tells Yahoo Life. Kuo says that her chapter has started fielding questions from members who tell them teachers say they won’t return to school until students have been vaccinated. “There’s no vaccine authorized for kids,” she says, pointing out that it could be a very long time until in-person school resumed under that requirement.

“Here in California, students have not been in school since the pandemic started in March,” Kuo says. “We’re going to see detrimental effects for years. There will be a whole generation of students who suffer from inadequate physical activity, emotional health issues, mental health issues and not being able to keep up with the material at home.”

Kuo says it’s especially frustrating that restaurants in her area have opened several times while schools have not.

School administrators have clashed with Newsom’s plan to reopen schools, arguing that they don’t have the resources or a unified plan to get students back to in-person learning safely. “Despite heroic efforts by students, teachers and families, it will take a coordinated effort by all in state and local government to reopen classrooms,” the superintendents from seven of the state’s largest school districts said in a joint statement in January.

But Kuo says that pediatricians are “hopeful” in-person schooling will resume this year. “Schools should stay open despite what’s going on outside,” she says. “They’re essential businesses, just like hospitals and supermarkets.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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