The start of another school year here in New York is approximately 1 month away, and it’s hard to believe that everything is still clouded by COVID uncertainty. Infection rates are up pretty dramatically. The new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus (Delta and Delta+ in particular) are causing transmission and hospitalization rates to spike across the country just as a total of more than 50 million children are heading back to school.
The state hasn’t released guidance for schools because The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hasn’t issued new guidance, which is what the state faces its recommendations on. The CDC is holding back on another update because the coronavirus landscape is changing rapidly. School districts had been planning for back to “new normal” re-openings, incorporating the now familiar temperature checks and a few other things.
The CDC updated its guidance for schools last week, recommending that students and school staff wear masks when indoors, including people who have been vaccinated. The decision reflected the dramatic increase in infections, transmissions and hospitalizations from the spread of the delta variants, including among those already vaccinated. It was surprising because it came mere weeks after CDC officials said vaccinated students and staff didn’t need to use masks indoors. From what I can determine, the country’s 14,000 school districts are strongly recommending students and staff wear masks, but many aren’t requiring them. I think a majority of people are likely to not bother.
Meanwhile, a small number of states have passed legislation making it either impossible for schools to create mask mandates or threatening to withhold state funding for those that do so. Texas and Florida are two such states have implemented those types of legal hurdles. Ironically, those are also the two states currently with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the country.
Some schools that have already started the new academic year with mask-optional policies have swiftly had serious coronavirus outbreaks and a rapid return to remote learning. The Lamar County School District in Mississippi was mentioned in multiple news headlines this past week because it had to close a couple of schools and return students to virtual learning until Aug. 16. That district’s schools had only been open for a single week of deliberately staggered re-opening, so they weren’t even at full capacity all week. According to published reports, one high school identified dix cases among staff members and 41 cases among students. The outbreak forced the quarantine of about 100 additional people.
In NYC, the largest school district
New York City’s health department launched a $1.3 million ad campaign promoting vaccination. It also has big plans to call every family to make sure they know how to get vaccinated. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that city employees, including teachers, must have at least one dose of the vaccine by September 13, which is the first day of school otherwise they must be tested for the virus every week. After searching pretty extensively I still can’t find how the New York City school district plans to make decisions about what metrics will force school closures. According to the most current numbers I could find, about 230,000 of 12- to 17-year-olds in New York City, which is roughly 45%, have received at least one dose of vaccine. Moves to mandate vaccines have angered teachers unions, which pushed back against calls to require educators be vaccinated.
Kindergarten through 12th grade
The majority of K-12 students aren’t eligible for vaccination. Vaccination rates are reportedly low among eligible 12- to 17-year-olds. Top public health and education officials are trying to make sure students return to in-person, full time, 5 days a week learning. Nobody wants to see another pandemic version of a school year. The strong position that kids must be in classrooms this school year is emphatically supported by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, psychologists, the White House, parents, state leaders, educators, principals, school superintendents, policymakers and politicians of both major political parties. Many students need the social structure, meals, physical activity, academic support and challenges that can only be gotten if they are physically present in school.
From the federal Education Department
Earlier this week the Education Department issued what it described as a “return-to-school road map” to help with best practices for re-opening safely. It also addresses how federal aid can effectively be utilized to address academic, social and emotional learning loss, especially for those students most negatively impacted by the pandemic. The Roadmap includes three “Landmark” priorities. These are areas that schools and communities are encouraged to focus on to make sure all students are set up for success in the new school year. These include:
- Prioritizing the health and safety of students, staff, and educators
- Building school communities and supporting students’ social, emotional, and mental health
- Accelerating academic achievement
According to a release by the U S Department of Education on August 2nd 2021, the Roadmap is part of the Department’s wider efforts to support schools and districts in a safe return to in-person learning. In addition to releasing the Roadmap, the Department reports that it has:
- Issued 3 volumes of the COVID-19 Handbook to support K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in reopening efforts.
- Prioritized vaccination of educators, school staff and child care workers.
- Published Safer Schools and Best Practices Clearinghouse, including more than 200 examples of schools and communities safely returning to in-person learning.
- Held a National Safe School Reopening Summit.
- Provided $122 billion in support through the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund for K-12 schools.
- Released over $3 billion in IDEA funds within the American Rescue Plan to support children and families with disabilities impacted by the pandemic.
- Released $800 million within the American Rescue Plan to support students experiencing homelessness who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
- Released a report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on underserved students.
- Launched an Equity Summit Series focused on addressing school and district inequities that existed before, but were worsened by the pandemic.
- Provided nearly $40 billion in funding for institutions of higher education within the American Rescue Plan, about half of which will provide direct aid to students at postsecondary institutions.
Confusion and Frustration
With the school year already underway for some school districts and swiftly approaching for the rest, the variants are challenging plans for safe, fully in-person re-openings. The situation is raising serious questions about whether school officials will be able to keep the virus at minimal levels and keep school doors safely open for kids.
I received an email today from my kid’s high school basically saying they are planning on things being back to normal when school starts in a few weeks. The principal did note that since everything is still uncertain, they’ll be updating us when they get updated by the state and the CDC. Parents want answers. Schools want to give answers, but it’s not a definitive situation. School administrators are in such a tough position. They want to do what’s best for students, faculty and staff, and their own families, and are simultaneously bound by decisions made by governing bodies who also have political influences upon them. The best road map in the world is not of much use if the rate of new infections keeps climbing and climbing, and our children are impacted.
As a parent, it’s disturbing to me how politicized everything to do with the coronavirus has become. My own friends and associates seem to be equally divided between those who think vaccination and precautions are important, and those who think it’s all some kind of scam or conspiracy.
I have some of the most dedicated readers anywhere who are also active in the From In Here blog community, and follow my pages to stay in touch. I’d love to hear what you think about this issue. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share some of your thoughts about it all. I’ll definitely be rewarding a couple of people who take the time to contact me about it!