School Report Card: Texas schools encourage masks, Biden urges prioritizing teachers for vaccination

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Texas high school student
While masks will no longer be required by the state governments, students in public schools are still encouraged to wear them. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

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.

Despite removal of statewide mask mandates, Texas and Mississippi schools still encourage face coverings

Government officials in Texas and Mississippi received backlash this week after announcing the end of their respective statewide mask mandates. President Biden spoke out on the lifted mandates, calling the thought process behind them "Neanderthal."

But, while masks will no longer be required by the state governments, students in public schools are still encouraged to wear them. After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to strongly encourage the continued use of masks in schools.

“Every student, teacher, or staff member shall wear a mask over the nose and mouth when inside a school building, school facility, facility used for school activities, or when in an outdoor space on school property or used for school activities, wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household,” the guidance says. However, it also includes this caveat: “The governing board of a school system may modify or eliminate by formal action the above mask-related requirements.”

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves announced the end of the state’s mask mandate, but included a provision for schools. In an order released on March 3, Reeves said that face masks would still be required in K-12 schools when social distancing isn’t possible.

Experts including Dr. Steven Horwitz, assistant professor of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, agree with that idea. “We’ve learned during the course of this pandemic that masks are an important tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Horwitz tells Yahoo Life. “They allow us to keep more children in school than if they weren't masked.”

Dr. Danelle Fisher, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that mask-wearing in schools is “incredibly important,” adding, “we still have to be incredibly cautious when we’re in situations when we’re not with our typical cohort.”

Joe Biden urges states to prioritize teachers and school staff in their COVID-19 vaccination schedule

On Tuesday, President Biden urged states to consider teachers and school staff as essential workers in their vaccination schedules. The goal, he said, is for every teacher, school staffer and childcare provider to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month.

“As yet another move to help accelerate the safe reopening of schools, let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is,” he said. “That means getting essential workers who provide that service — educators, school staff, child care workers — get them vaccinated immediately. They’re essential workers.”

 A Los Angeles preschool teacher
A Los Angeles preschool teacher receives her first injection at a site set up for education workers. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

“Teachers unions applauded the move. What a tremendous relief to have a president who is meeting this moment of crisis,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life in a statement. “Vaccinations are a key ingredient to reopening schools safely.” Weingarten says that teachers have been working “in ways that are heroic but unsustainable,” noting that educators are “exhausted.”

“By following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and with the help of this federal commitment to prioritize teacher vaccinations, we’re confident that within the next weeks and months, we’ll be able to be back in classrooms, enabling the academic, social and emotional learning that we know happens best in-person,” Weingarten says.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, tells Yahoo Life in a statement that her organization applauds the move. “With promises of a vaccine, we have a new opportunity to create safe and just schools for every student,” she says.

Fisher says the administration’s push to vaccinate teachers is “wonderful,” adding, “it’s about time somebody stepped up to make sure our teachers are safe and vaccinated.”

Some Los Angeles private schools helped staff get COVID-19 vaccinations early through the use of access codes meant for vulnerable populations

Several private schools in Los Angeles are under fire after a report published in the Los Angeles Times accused them of using workarounds to get teachers and staff vaccinated early. Three of the schools — Alverno Heights Academy, Westmark School and Mirman School — either used restricted access codes meant for vulnerable populations or certified that their staff were responsible for health care duties in order to get them vaccinated early, according to school emails, meeting minutes and letters obtained by the Times.

Julia Fanara, head of school at Alverno Heights Academy, tells Yahoo Life that her school was “unaware the code we were provided was reserved for underserved individuals or that such a program existed. In hindsight, we should have more thoroughly vetted the origin of the code.”

But, Fanara says, “To the best of our knowledge, no one on our staff used the code to obtain a vaccine.” Fanara says that her school continues to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff and the local community “by working hard to adhere to all guidelines set by state and local health authorities.” She adds, “We believe vaccinating teachers is a critical element to ensure the wellbeing of our community and we have encouraged our employees to obtain a vaccine as soon as supplies and guidelines allow.”

Fisher says she has mixed feelings about teachers getting vaccinated ahead of their scheduled allotment. “I agree that we need to protect our most vulnerable, but it’s tricky because we want teachers to be safe, too,” she says. Fisher also points out that teachers are currently being vaccinated in Los Angeles, and that these schools “jumped ahead of line a few weeks.”

“While I don’t necessarily think it’s great, I’m not mad at anyone getting the vaccine,” Fisher says.

Study finds 3 million marginalized students have been missing from school for a year

A disturbing study from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that focuses on underserved communities, estimates that about 3 million of the “most educationally marginalized students in the country” may have been missing from school since March 2020.

The organization says that the reasons are complex, but may be due to issues like lack of computers at home, no Wi-Fi access, instability at home and needing to care for or provide learning support for younger siblings. The report says that “once a student leaves school, it is difficult to reenter” and those that do try will likely face “permanent setbacks.”

Horwitz says that children being out of school is “a massive problem and should be addressed soon after our focus on health care.” The impact of children not being in school “is incredibly detrimental for them educationally, socially and mentally,” he says.

“There are a lot of people out there who need school because it’s literally life-saving — their families are dealing with poverty, homelessness and food insecurity,” Fisher says. “We are failing children as a country now, but I have every hope that we’ll be able to get back on track and get those children back where they need to be — in school.”

Bellwether recommends that public leaders at every level of government develop, implement and enforce “coherent, science-based strategies to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, stamp out community transmission and eventually enable safe community re-openings, prioritizing a safe return to school for all.”

Los Angeles Unified School District will resume in-person learning in April

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week a multibillion-dollar deal to reopen schools to in-person learning by April 1. The deal has not received formal approval from the state Legislature but would create a $2 billion incentive pool that will give money to schools that reopen for kindergarten through second-grade students, along with students who have special needs.

Schools that don’t resume in-person learning by April 1 will lose 1 percent of their part of the money for each day they stay closed. But while the Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to resume in-person learning, it doesn’t look like it will meet the deadline.

“On track to reopen schools in April,” superintendent Austin Beutner tweeted on March 1, including a graphic that said, “the goal is mid-April.”

Data provided by the state of California shows that select public school districts across the state have reopened to in-person learning, including Mariposa County Unified, Baker Valley Unified and Trona Joint Unified. Many private schools across the state have also reopened.

Fisher, who lives in the Los Angeles Unified School District, says she's “thrilled” that in-person learning will resume again. “It's not a moment too soon,” she says. “The feeling in Los Angeles is general elation at the thought that our kids can go back to school. We are safely seeing other schools reopen and going well. I think it will be a wonderful thing for students.”

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