School Report Card: Experts address classroom safety amid pending teen vaccine approval; some schools in Florida may ditch masks come fall

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.

Experts say a Pfizer EUA for younger kids may make school safer in the fall — if they are vaccinated

Pfizer is expected to be granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) next week for the use of its COVID-19 vaccine in kids ages 12 to 15, making this the youngest group to be eligible for inoculation. Experts say vaccine uptake in this age group can help make schools safer in the fall, but it's not mandatory for school safety.

"I don’t think that we need to have that EUA in order to have all schools operating as close to normal as possible," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "Vaccinating this group makes it easier, though, and makes it easier to have extracurricular activities. It also removes one more roadblock."

Polls have shown that parents are hesitant to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19. One from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that three in 10 plan to get their children given the shots immediately, while a little more than 25 percent say they want to wait and see how the vaccine does in children before inoculating their own.

An April Yahoo/YouGov poll also had similar results. The survey of 1,606 U.S. adults found that 39 percent of parents say they will have their children vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’re eligible. But 37 percent say they will not get their kids vaccinated; 24 percent say they're unsure if they will.

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, says the vaccine will only make an impact if families actually use it. "We need to strongly encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated," he says. "Despite kids being at lower risk, some do get sick and die from COVID-19."

Emory University's president writes letter of recommendation for the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021

Emory University president Gregory Fenves took out an ad in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Atlanta Journal-Constitution to recommend the school's graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 to employers. The letter was later shared on the Emory website.

"If you are looking to recruit employees who are resilient, dynamic, empathetic, forward-thinking, creative, and driven, then I recommend you consider our thousands of graduates who completed their Emory degrees under extraordinary circumstances," Fenves wrote, noting that students "spent years completing rigorous academic and professional programs that are ranked among the finest in the world."

The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow them down, he said. "When a global pandemic forced them to leave campus last year, they balanced coursework with family responsibilities, adapted to online learning, and reconfigured their lives," Fenves wrote. "They did not waver. Instead, they pulled together — not only to continue thriving in their education, but to support one another and maintain their community and shared purpose in spite of everything they faced."

After saying he "couldn't be prouder" of the students, Fenves ended on this note: "I know you are looking for talented, high-performing employees, innovative leaders, team members and team builders, and that’s exactly who our Emory graduates are. They have my highest recommendation."

"I’ve been asked to write many letters of recommendations during my career, but I only say yes to the requests that come from those who I know have gone above and beyond in their professions and academic careers," Fenves told Yahoo Life. "This is the only time in my life where it seemed clear that this level of accomplishment and dedication applied to an entire class of graduates. These students are amazing."

Fenves says it's been "really fun" to see alumni and students share the letter. "I hope they appreciate the gesture and know how much I admire all they have done over the past year," he says.

Two Missouri school districts distribute stipend to teachers for pandemic work

Administrators in two Missouri school districts have given teachers and staff a special stipend to thank them for their work during the pandemic. Employees of Pierce City Schools and Monett R-1 School District were given a one-time COVID-19 relief stipend of either $1,000 for full-time employees or $500 for part-time staffers.

"They deserve it," Pierce City Schools superintendent Kelli Alumbaugh tells Yahoo Life, noting that the district started school "on time" and for in-person learning in August. Still, she says, "due to COVID and the ever-changing state of things, it has been a challenging year."

But Alumbaugh says her staff, from custodians to college algebra teachers, has been "always ready and willing to take on anything that may come our way."

"It's always exciting when you find a $20 bill in the pocket of your winter coat after a hot summer, so this stipend is kind of like that — it's something they weren't expecting, and it is more than deserved."

Alumbaugh says staff members have been "very appreciative and thankful," and she's had fun hearing how they plan to spend the extra money. "Some are putting it in savings, and some are using it to help them check something off their bucket list," she says.

Alumbaugh stresses the importance of understanding how willing educators have been to adapt during the pandemic. "Teachers and school staff are always going to show up and do whatever it takes to educate our students. They are always going to put students' needs before their own," she says. "Not just now, but teachers and staff always need to be supported. Their jobs are hard, yet rewarding. This profession isn't chosen for the money ... but to make a difference."

Some Georgia students are no longer required to wear masks at school

Students who attend Georgia's Evans County School System now have the option to not wear masks at school. The district made the announcement on Facebook, noting that it would "resume normal operations for [the] remainder of the school year."

The district has not seen any cases of COVID-19 among students or employees since March 25. "Based upon the continued trend of extremely low cases," ECSS lifted all "mandates and restrictions" as of May 3, the post reads. "We will continue to recommend that masks be worn, recommend that social distancing be practiced, and we will continue to stress the importance of good hygiene." Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting efforts will also continue, the post reads, but "other than the recommendations, all school operations will resume under normal conditions." The post adds that the district is "prepared to move immediately back into our protocols should we experience an uptick in cases."

Evans County School System superintendent Martin Waters did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

"We'll probably see more of this at other schools going forward," Johns Hopkins's Adalja says. "But it's premature until we get more control of community transmission."

Evans County has seen few cases of COVID-19 recently, with just one reported case of the virus on May 6, according to the New York Times' coronavirus tracker.

Still, Adalja says, there is a risk of outbreak when students and staff aren't masked. "There will be disruptions due to the virus, and that is an issue," he says.

Northeast Ohio's Watkins agrees. "Now is not the time to relax measures that seem to be working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as mask wearing," he says. "This is a big mistake. Once we see strong evidence that the pandemic is getting better, which might happen as early as this summer, then mask wearing can be relaxed."

Schools in Florida will not be affected by Gov. DeSantis's move to lift local COVID-19 emergency orders

Florida's Department of Education has issued guidance to schools after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order this week ending all local COVID-19 restrictions in the state. The executive order "only impacts city and county governments, and does NOT impact school districts and individual schools," the guidance says.

Prior to DeSantis's order, which goes into effect July 1, the state's commissioner of education, Richard Corcoran, sent a letter to district superintendents that recommended they change their policies to make masks voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year. "The data shows us that districts' face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus," the letter, which is dated April 14, reads. "Face coverings are a personal decision and certainly families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision that is unique to their circumstances. Broad sweeping mandatory face-covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools."

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn in schools.

The letter also said that "mandatory face-covering policies inhibit peer-to-peer learning in our classrooms and they may also unintentionally create a barrier for students and families who would otherwise choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place." As a result, Corcoran wrote, he wants school districts to "revise" their face mask policy for the coming school year.

But a Florida Department of Education spokesperson told Yahoo Life that it's "up to each individual school district" whether to follow Corcoran's advice.

James Norton, superintendent of Florida's Gulf District Schools in Port St. Joe, tells Yahoo Life that his district will not be requiring masks next year. "We very much value the guidance of the governor and commissioner," he says. "As such, we plan to live without the requirement for masks and federal government overreach."

Norton says his district has "done our best to use common sense with regard to issues of the day."

"We do take the threat that COVID poses very seriously," he continues. "But we also take seriously the threat that a lot of other things may pose. Personally, and I think most in my district support, I think personal choice and liberty trump harsh requirements that mask mandates impose."

Sharon Michalik, director of communications for Bay District Schools in Panama City, Fla., says, "Currently our district plans to review mask policies for this year and next year at next Tuesday's school board meeting."

Yahoo Life reached out to a dozen other school districts across the state but did not immediately receive responses with regard to plans to change mask policies for the 2021-2022 school year. Florida reported 4,504 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday.

Watkins calls Corcoran's recommendation "premature," adding that "schools need to be flexible and may need to adjust their plans based on the current circumstances."

Adalja says the safety of unmasking in school will depend on how many students are vaccinated and what the rate of community transmission is. "If cases are prevalent in the community, there's going to be some risk that the virus will disrupt school activities," he says. "But we have to wait and see what transmission and vaccine uptake looks like in the fall to make those types of decisions."

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