Districts lift or tweak long-standing COVID-19 policies: 'Schools are just eager to get back to the way things were'

·8 min read
People line up for a COVID screening at a testing and vaccination site at a public school in Los Angeles.
People line up for a COVID screening at a site in Los Angeles. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Students are back in 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 about the ongoing situation.

New California bill would require all schools to have COVID-19 testing plans

This week, California State Sen. Richard Pan introduced a bill that would require school districts to develop COVID-19 testing plans with state health officials. SB 1479 would require that every school have a testing plan in place created in conjunction with the California Department of Public Health.

The bill would also add funding to support the programs and even include funds for pre-K, after-school programs and child care centers to develop testing plans if they wished.

"COVID testing plans are essential to parents and schools and child care sites being confident in staying open and keeping children safe from COVID," Pan, who is also a pediatrician, said in a statement. "Funded school testing plans provide vital information to protect students and teachers through COVID variants and surges."

The move raises a lot of questions about what the future role of testing will be in schools.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that there's likely to be a mix when it comes to testing in schools in the future. "Some school districts will test for at least a period of time, but many will not," he says. "Many schools are just eager to get back to the way things were."

But infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that it's "important for schools to have plans for respiratory viruses as such, not just COVID." He adds, "I don’t necessarily think it has to be something stipulated by law but should be based on each school's needs and policies."

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, agrees that this is an important step for schools to at least consider. "It is wise to have contingency plans in place," he says.

Coalition of experts creates sharable plan for making schools safer during pandemic

A group called Urgency of Equity has created a "toolkit" to try to make schools safer during the pandemic — and they're sharing it online. The group promises to continue to update the advice "as new science and information are available."

The toolkit stresses that multiple layers of protection are important, including high vaccination rates for teachers, staff and students, improved ventilation and air filtration systems, high-quality masking and at least weekly testing for students, staff and teachers.

The toolkit was developed by a volunteer coalition of public health experts, advocates and grassroots organizations "to help parents, teachers, students, workers, and community members advocate for safer, more equitable schools and debunk misinformation about COVID-19 protections," Urgency of Equity member Maria Pyra, an epidemiologist and research assistant professor at the University of Chicago, tells Yahoo Life. "We currently have experts on ventilation, mental health, mask policies, education and neuroscience, epidemiologists and physicians, as well as advocates living with long COVID," she says.

Pyra says the group is "concerned" about "calls for relaxing COVID-19 protections in schools while there are still high levels of COVID transmission in most communities around the country," noting that there is a "practical and moral urgency" to protect students and staff.

"The toolkit emphasizes ways we can prioritize health and well-being in our schools, recognizing that layers of protection are the best way to protect the school community from an airborne virus," Pyra says. "We're hoping that people working toward safer schools will find it a useful resource to make equity-centered decisions based on good data."

Pyra says that the group is now working to get the information out to communities that are the most affected by the pandemic, along with parents and school boards.

New Hampshire schools will no longer be allowed to shift to remote learning with increased COVID-19 infections

A new rule in New Hampshire will prevent public schools from shifting to mandatory remote learning for students due to COVID-19 infections. The rule, which passed the state's joint legislative committee and state board of education, says that schools can only do remote learning in the event of poor weather that makes it unsafe for students to travel to and from school. Parents will also be able to request remote learning for their students on an individual basis.

Public schools will still be able to close if there are high numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but schools would need to have instructional days at the end of the year instead of going remote.

Some educators pushed back against the ruling earlier this winter, arguing that it takes away a vital tool for schools. Brian Hawkins, a representative of the National Education Association New Hampshire, argued during a state board of education meeting that many people want school districts to at least have the ability to conduct remote learning if necessary.

But infectious disease experts say it's time to keep kids in schools. "I'm in favor of doing away with remote learning," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "Our children need to be in schools for their educational, social and mental health. With good mitigation plans which could include all these children being vaccinated, our schools can be a good place to be."

Adalja agrees. "In-person schooling should be the norm," he says. "I think it is reasonable that there be a compelling reason for a student to need remote learning at this stage of the pandemic."

Majority of New Yorkers want to wait for more data before lifting school mask mandates

A new survey conducted by the Siena College Research Institute found that 58 percent of New Yorkers want to wait for early March COVID-19 data before deciding whether the state's school mask mandate should be lifted.

Thirty percent of those surveyed said the mask mandate should have already ended, while 10 percent said they want to see it end in late February. "Waiting to see data from early March before deciding to lift the school mask mandate — as opposed to lifting that mandate as schools reconvene next week or wishing it had been lifted previously — is how the majority of New Yorkers would like to proceed," Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster, said in a press release.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has said she wants to wait to review COVID-19 data for early March before deciding whether she will lift the state's school mask mandate. However, Hochul allowed the state's indoor mask mandate to expire earlier this month.

"New Yorkers sound a little more like conservative public health doctors," Schaffner says. "They would also like to see these COVID-19 trends that we've been seeing continue. The overall thought is let's take it easy and slow this down a little because we're afraid we could have bursts of infection again."

Russo says he's in favor of waiting a little longer to lift mask mandates in schools. "Vaccination rates have been less-than-excellent in our schools," he says. "While masks are imperfect, I like waiting until we get to low or moderate COVID case counts to lift these mandates. When you have a lot of disease circulating in a community, it's almost certain that children will be infected if mitigation efforts aren't in place."

But Adalja says it's unlikely that things will change much between now and early March. "I suspect that cases and hospitalizations will likely continue to fall through March," he says. "Waiting to end mask mandates until that time will likely not have a material difference."

North Carolina's largest school districts voted to remove mask requirements

North Carolina's two largest school districts — the Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school boards — voted separately this week to remove their COVID-19 mask requirements. The mask mandates will lift in both districts, which represent about 300,000 students, as of March 7.

The Wake County Public School System now says on its website that masks "will be recommended but not required in schools for all staff, students and visitors" starting March 7. However, masks will continue to be required on buses for students and staff.

"Current trends point to a shift in COVID-19 conditions and indicate the need for a revised response plan that encompasses prevention, surveillance and equitable distribution of resources," Dr. Raynard Washington, director of Mecklenburg County Public Health, said in a statement after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools voted down its mask mandate. "Our duty is to make these difficult decisions based upon the best advice available to ensure the well-being of our students and employees," school board chair Elyse Dashew said in a statement. However, the school board plans to review its masking policy at least once a month.

Watkins says he expects this trend to continue across the country. "It is likely that mask mandates will come to an end in the near future," he says. Schaffner agrees. "l would assume that, by the fall, if everything is OK and we don't have a new variant, all school systems will be maskless," he says. "The issue is how quickly do you take the masks off now?"

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.