Va. schools take matters into their own hands after mask, vaccine mandates lift; Calif. district runs its own COVID-19 testing site

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Students wearing masks walk out the doors of Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Virginia.
Students at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington County, which is one of several school districts that sued to stop the mask-optional order by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Jan. 25. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

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 on the ever-unfolding situation.

Massive shake-ups happen with COVID strategies at Virginia schools

Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin rescinded a previous executive order that allowed for vaccine mandates in schools, and last week he removed a mask mandate for all public schools. Now, many school systems are taking COVID-19 mitigation strategies into their own hands.

Seven school districts sued the governor last week over his removal of mask mandates in schools. Now, a judge has sided with the districts. Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo gave the school boards a temporary restraining order against Youngkin's executive order that stated that students don't have to follow school mask mandates, NBC Washington reported. DiMatteo ruled that Youngkin's order can't override school district policy.

However, some schools are making their own plans. The state's Essex County Public Schools board voted Monday to get rid of all COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools. Those strategies include mask requirements, social distancing, contact tracing, quarantining and extra cleaning, among other things. "We affirm that the existing mitigation strategies and protocols are not practicable, and they hinder our efforts to educate our students," one board member said at the meeting.

Several Virginia public universities, including the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, have dropped their vaccine mandates in the wake of Youngkin's order. "On January 15, 2022, the Governor signed an Executive Directive prohibiting state agencies, including institutions of higher education, from requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment," the University of Virginia wrote on its website. "While a strong majority of UVA employees are fully vaccinated and have received booster shots, any employee who is not fully vaccinated or boosted (once eligible) is strongly encouraged to get vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible." The school now refers to vaccination requirements for students in the past tense.

Virginia Tech also updated its language on COVID-19 vaccinations to read, "While not required, Virginia Tech students and employees are encouraged to be vaccinated, get a booster dose and to report their vaccination status to the university. Vaccines remain our best protection against COVID-19."

Meanwhile, in Norfolk, Va., public schools will begin offering free, optional COVID-19 testing to athletes, starting Feb. 14. "Offering COVID testing is the next step in sound mitigation strategies to keep our sports programs running healthily," Stephen Suttmiller, senior coordinator of athletics for Norfolk Public Schools, said in a statement shared with Yahoo Life.

While schools are changing COVID-19 strategies, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that "we are not there yet" when it comes to fully removing mitigations. "Although cases are decreasing there is still a high community burden of disease in most locales," he said. "Premature cessation of mitigation measures runs the risk of prolonging the Omicron wave."

But Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that "universities have to have off-ramps for mitigation," noting that "most have highly vaccinated student bodies." As for testing athletes, Adalja says it makes sense. "Certain extracurricular activities are higher-risk and, in order to facilitate less disruption, focused testing can be useful," he said.

Russo agreed. "Testing is a measure that can help decrease this risk," he said. "Vaccination is even better."

California school district runs its own COVID-19 testing site

California's Escondido Union School District has created its own COVID-19 testing site to help keep kids in school. The program, which is available for all students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade in the district, uses rapid antigen and PCR testing, according to a website about it, and results are shared electronically with patients.

The registration and consent process only takes about five minutes, the website says. Michelle Breier, digital communications specialist for the district, tells Yahoo Life that the testing center is operated out of the district's office. "The testing is open for students and employees, as well as their family members, and antigen tests are offered at school sites for students who experience a close contact on campus," she said.

"We continue to keep our focus on providing a safe and inclusive environment for teaching and learning," Breier continued. "We determined that providing such a comprehensive testing program is an essential part of ensuring that teaching and learning continue uninterrupted, safely."

The testing site has specific hours when both staff and students can go in to accommodate their schedules, with staff having access from 7 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and students having access from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

So far in February, only two students with COVID-19 have attended school in the district while infectious with the virus, the district's COVID-19 dashboard says. That number was much higher in January, which saw 942 students and 168 staff members attend school while infectious.

"Testing is very important to minimize quarantine and implement the CDC's test-to-stay policies," Adalja says. "If schools can be innovative and run their own testing apparatus, that is a good thing." Making testing easily accessible allows COVID-19 cases to be identified early, Russo points out. That, he says, "will help decrease the numbers of cases and enable more students, staff and faculty to get back to or stay in school."

New York City schools scale back on remote learning eligibility

The New York City Department of Education has tweaked its eligibility for remote learning for students. In a message for families released this week, school officials shared that, effective immediately, students participating in remote learning will be marked present only when they're isolating "consistent with health guidance due to a positive COVID-19 test result."

Students who are not in school for reasons other than a positive COVID-19 test result or school closure "will be marked absent and can no longer be marked present for remote instruction," the message reads.

The change is in response to a rapid drop in positive COVID-19 cases in New York City schools. On Thursday, 438 students (out of approximately 1.1 million) tested positive for the virus, according to city data.

Experts say this move makes sense. "Remote learning is clearly not as beneficial as in-person instruction," Russo said. "Therefore we would like to minimize this means of teaching." Still, he said, it's good to continue to have this option for students who test positive for COVID-19.

"Although remote learning is less than ideal, it is better than nothing if students need to isolate due to infection or quarantine pending test results," Russo said. "When we shift to endemic phase, and as more students are vaccinated, fewer students will fall into this category. At that point, we will need to reassess the cost-benefit of this measure."

Adalja agreed. "The default has to be in-person learning — it is unequivocally superior," he said. "If someone is not sick or contagious, they should be in school."

New Hampshire schools no longer need to report individual COVID-19 cases, outbreaks

New Hampshire officials are scaling back on COVID-19 reporting requirements in schools. Now, public schools in the state will no longer be required to report clusters, outbreaks or daily cases of the virus.

A message posted to the state's COVID-19 dashboard for schools now reads, "As with many states, New Hampshire is transitioning to a more sustainable surveillance approach for schools to report COVID-19 cases. K-12 schools, colleges and universities will begin reporting the aggregate number of COVID-19 infections in students and staff on a weekly basis." The previous school dashboard is no longer available.

State epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan told Manchester, N.H., news station WMUR-TV that the change was in response to school officials being overwhelmed by the burden of having to report all cases individually. Instead of reporting individual cases, schools will need to give the state an aggregate number of infections each week through an online form. The data will be available the following week and will replace school COVID-19 case dashboards.

"This is sort of the next evolution, I think, in finding a more sustainable way to conduct public health surveillance and is in line with the position that is being taken by public health departments and public health agencies across the country," Chan said. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Russo says that it's still important to track school case counts. "Tracking case counts in schools and identifying outbreaks has the potential to gauge how well your mitigation program is working," he explained. "These data may lead to a reevaluation of preventative strategies, identification of deficiencies and subsequent improvements going forward that may help minimize cases."

But Adalja says that this is where things are headed in case reporting. "Eventually, reporting of COVID will become more routinized and similar to what it is for other endemic diseases," he said. "This is evidence of that transition."

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