'We're at a transition point in the pandemic': Schools struggle with current COVID policies

·9 min read
Students at a magnet school in Los Angeles
Students at a magnet school in Los Angeles. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times 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.

School boards in California to make pandemic-related changes

Some school boards in California have made changes related to pandemic protocols in schools.

In San Diego, school board members banded together to fight COVID-19 mandates in schools. The group, which calls itself School Board Members for Local Control, is asking state officials to end its school mask mandate and to stop enforcing state COVID-19 rules on school districts, coalition organizer Andrew Hayes, a school board member in San Diego's Lakeside School District, tells Yahoo Life.

"We've been seeing mandate after mandate from Sacramento over the past two years with no support from Sacramento," he says. [Sacramento is the capital of California and where the governor resides.] “We need local control to keep kids in the classroom,” Hayes explains. “Board members, teachers, administrators, families are all frustrated. We need to be empowered with no more one-size-fits-all policies with respect to masking and other COVID policies in the classroom."

Hayes says the coalition, which now includes members from 14 school districts, is seeking:

  • Control over masking decisions in their own schools.

  • The end of California's state of emergency.

  • No statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schools.

Meanwhile, three members of the San Francisco Unified School Board were ousted this week on Tuesday in a recall election.

School board president Gabriela López and commissioners Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins were voted out of the seven-member board by more than 70 percent of the nearly 150,000 ballots cast on Election Day, according to the San Francisco Department of Elections.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued a statement on the recall, noting that the voters “delivered a clear message that the school board must focus on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else.” She will appoint the ousted board members’ replacements.

State Sen. Scott Wiener announced his support for the recall on Twitter in November and alleged that the board members mismanaged funds, did not prioritize safety and instead focused on the renaming of certain schools.

“We’re at a transition point in the pandemic,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Cases, hospitalizations, ICU visits and even deaths are trending downward throughout the country.” That’s also coupled with “a real sense of COVID fatigue and even annoyance,” he says. As a result, Schaffner says, “people are eager to move to a new normal.”

All of these factors have pushed parents and school board members to take local action, he says.

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that in-person learning “can be safely achieved with vaccinations and the execution of an appropriate mitigation plan.” But Russo says that to get back to pre-COVID levels of normal, schools “need a combination of high levels of vaccination in our children, staff and teachers and low levels of disease in the community; most locales have yet to realize these metrics.”

Public colleges have mixed reactions to states removing mask mandates

States across the country are removing mask mandates in schools in response to plummeting COVID-19 cases, but public colleges are having mixed reactions.

After the state of Nevada dropped its mask mandate, officials from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced that the college would no longer require masks in school buildings “except those areas where health care services are being provided.” However, officials said, the school will continue to provide KN95 masks for people who want them.

UCLA, however, will keep its mask mandate in place, citing regulations from L.A. County, despite California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifting its statewide mandate. “UCLA cannot be less restrictive than L.A. County Department of Public Health and therefore will continue with its universal indoor mask requirement until further notice,” a notice from the school reads.

The University of Alabama announced this week that, starting Monday, masks will no longer be required in indoor spaces, with the exception of medical facilities and public transportation. Quarantine and isolation spaces will also be phased out during the semester, school officials said. “Those at heightened risk — and especially those who are unvaccinated — are strongly advised to be vaccinated, boosted, continue to wear masks and continue to limit their interactions with others,” a notice to the school community reads.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that it will lift its mask mandate on March 12. “We recognize that individuals will have different reactions to mask requirements ending and that for some it may feel stressful,” a notice to students and staff reads. “We encourage those who want to continue to wear masks to do so and we will continue to make high-quality masks available to our campus community free of charge.”

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that a college’s decision to lift indoor mask mandates “should depend on vaccination rates.” He adds, “I would feel much more comfortable removing mask mandates if the institution had a mandatory COVID vaccination policy.”

Schaffner encourages schools to "move slowly," pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools. “My adage is that it’s better to wear the mask too long than take the mask off too soon and get another surge in infections,” Schaffner says. “I counsel moving forward slowly and carefully.”

A pregnant teacher in Virginia lost her baby after contracting COVID

The family of a pregnant teacher in Virginia who miscarried at 15 weeks after contracting COVID-19 is speaking out with allegations that her school district did not do enough to protect teachers during the Omicron wave. Brandon Beam, the husband of Southeastern Elementary School teacher Che Marie Beam, spoke about the loss of the couple’s baby at a Chesapeake Public Schools board meeting on Monday.

"School should have been taught virtually the first two weeks after winter break, like the health department recommended," Brandon said in the meeting. He explained that his wife began feeling sick within those two weeks and tested positive for COVID-19. “My wife was in bed with a high fever and severe cough for almost a week,” he said. When Che had a visit with her ob-gyn after her isolation period was over, an ultrasound revealed that their baby, who they named David, “no longer had a heartbeat.”

“He was born sleeping on January 27. He was perfect, fully developed, with all his fingers, toes, no genetic abnormalities and he weighed only four ounces,” Brandon said through tears. “Throughout this entire process, we have been continuously disappointed by the school board and the upper administration of Chesapeake Public Schools. My wife made multiple calls and sent multiple emails asking for help and guidance. She was routinely ignored.”

The family held a memorial service for David at a local funeral home.

A spokesperson for Chesapeake Public Schools did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. Neither Brandon Beam nor Che Beam responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

“A large body of data supports that pregnant women with COVID have a significantly worse outcome,” Russo says. “Recent data also suggests there is an increase in stillbirths and premature delivery in women infected with COVID compared to those not infected.”

Experts stress the importance of taking precautions and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 when you’re pregnant or trying to conceive — all of which is currently recommended by the CDC and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “COVID is a serious concern for pregnant women,” Watkins says. "They should get vaccinated and boosted, as we know the vaccine is much safer for them and their baby than COVID is."

Some school districts are distributing rapid tests to students ahead of February break

Schools across the country are gearing up for a midwinter break, and some are thinking ahead by distributing COVID-19 tests to students.

New York City public schools will send students home Friday with two rapid COVID tests each ahead of the planned winter break. "To keep our school communities safe after the midwinter recess, we strongly encourage all students to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to school on Feb. 28, regardless of vaccination status," the NYC Department of Education said in a letter to parents. The department is asking parents to test their children on the night of Feb. 26 and again on Feb. 27. However, students will not need to show proof of a negative test to return to school.

Jamestown Public Schools in western New York also distributed COVID-19 tests to students this week. Superintendent Kevin Whitaker said during a board meeting that Gov. Kathy Hochul asked districts to distribute the tests and will factor in the results in making a decision about mask mandates in schools. “This is an opportunity for us because the governor has asked parents to test before they return or on the date of return and later in that week,” Whitaker said, per the Post-Journal. “So if we have a lot of negative tests, then maybe that helps us with the mask decision that comes from there.”

Some school districts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, already require students and staff to undergo weekly testing to remain in school.

Boxes of rapid test kits
Boxes of rapid test kits provided by the state of California. (Jay Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Russo says there’s some value in having students tested for COVID-19 after breaks "especially during periods of high transmission." But, he says, these rapid tests are “a snapshot in time and a negative test doesn’t preclude someone being infectious the next day.”

Schaffner expects school districts to do more testing in the future. “It is clear most of the U.S. population has embraced testing,” he says. “Exactly how it will be used in schools, I expect it will vary greatly depending on local inclination, amount of disease, local resources and capacity to organize testing.”

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