Va. school districts sue governor after he ends mask mandate, L.A. public schools ban cloth masks

Students leave Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington County which is one of several school districts which sued to stop the mask-optional order by Governor Glenn Youngkin (R), in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
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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.

School districts sue Va. governor after he removed mask mandate

Seven school districts in Virginia have sued the governor after he removed a long-standing mask mandate in schools. Gov. Glenn Youngkin removed the mask mandate in schools via executive order that went into effect on Monday.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents," Youngkin said in a statement after signing the order. "Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask; it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process."

The lawsuit was jointly filed by the school boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County. The Fairfax County Public Schools district released a statement about the legal move, noting that it "defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff."

"This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity," the statement continues. "With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies. School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction."

Under the executive order, parents have the ability to opt their child out of any mask mandate that may be in effect at their child's school. Parents do not have to provide a reason or make any kind of certification in order to opt out of the mandate, according to the order.

When contacted for comment, Fairfax County Public Schools district spokesperson Kathleen Miller referred Yahoo Life to the lawsuit and school district's statement. However, Miller noted that in the school district of 180,000 students, only 24 (or 0.013 percent) did not comply with the district mask requirements on Tuesday. "In addition, early attendance data from Jan. 25 indicates a lower absence rate (5.1 percent) than the past two Tuesdays," she added. (Students were not in school on Monday, the first day the executive order was in place.)

The lawsuit comes in the same week as newly appointed Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares ruled in his first-ever legal opinion as AG that state universities can't have COVID-19 mandates. "Virginia state universities cannot mandate COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine as condition for enrollment or in-person attendance," he said in the ruling, which he shared on Twitter. It's important to note, though, that Miyares's opinion does not change the law.

Infectious disease experts argue that mask mandates are still necessary for schools. "They are clearly an additional barrier to transmission and also to acquisition of infection," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life. "Wearing a mask clearly helps reduce the risk of the virus moving from one person to another in schools."

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, agreed. "Although masks are not perfect, their use is an important proven measure to decrease infections in the indoor setting," he told Yahoo Life. "Their importance is magnified when vaccination rates are suboptimal and there is a high community burden of disease; both of these factors are presently ongoing issues for our school-age children."

But infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that he expects mask mandates in schools will go away with time. "The best way to keep people safe is through vaccination, and then any inevitable case that occurs will be mild," he said. Still, Adalja added, "for those who want to wear masks, one-way masking works."

Colo. district shuts down school-hosted clinic after minors were OK'd to get COVID-19 vaccine without a parent present

Colorado's Littleton Public Schools will no longer use school facilities to host COVID-19 vaccine clinics after videos surfaced on social media of minors attempting to get the shot without parental consent.

The videos, which were posted on the Twitter account @LibsofTikTok, show a person lying about their age to make it seem that they were over 18 (they weren't asked to show ID) and another who gave clinic workers a note that showed parental consent after he was told he needed parental approval before getting the vaccine. Both students left before they actually got the shot.

"Both of these brave students made up names, birthdays and phone numbers for the video," @LibsofTikTok wrote.

The school district responded to the "situation" on Tuesday with a message to parents. In it, superintendent Brian Ewert noted that local health department Tri-County Health asked to use the district's Heritage High School to host the clinic. "Heritage High School was not associated with the administration of this event in any way," Ewert said. "As is typical when outside entities use our spaces, the activities do not impact the school day and are kept separate from the school community. Heritage administration ensured that the vaccine clinic was not accessible to students during the school day unless they were accompanied by a parent."

Ewert said that the district "incorrectly assumed" that a parent was required to be present during vaccination but later learned that wasn't the case. "Please know that LPS does not condone the administration of COVID vaccines or any other vaccines to minors without a parent present to provide consent," Ewert said, noting that the district "reported our concern" to health officials. "Regardless of the outcome of these conversations, LPS will no longer provide locations for COVID vaccination clinics," he said. "Nothing is more important than the safety of our students and community members."

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Littleton Public Schools directed Yahoo Life to the statement sent to parents.

Despite the controversy, experts say that school-based clinics are a good way to increase access to vaccines for children. "School-based vaccination clinics are an easy and convenient way to increase vaccine rates — and not just for COVID but for a whole host of vaccine-preventable infections," Adalja says.

Schaffner pointed out that school-based vaccination programs are "nothing new," adding that these "have been part of what we've been doing in the U.S. for 50 years." These programs can be helpful to both students and their families, he says. "It saves parents time and energy if it can be done at school," Schaffner said.

Utah school district shortens school days to deal with COVID absenteeism

Utah's Cache County School District announced this week that it plans to shorten its school days, starting Jan. 31, to try to deal with high absence rates due to COVID-19.

"We have experienced more COVID cases, colds, flu and RSV in our schools," a message to families posted on the district website reads. "As a result, we are experiencing unprecedented student and staff absenteeism in our schools, which makes it extremely difficult for teachers and students."

The message goes on to say that over the past few weeks, 9 percent to 17 percent of elementary school students have been absent and between 19 percent and 31 percent of middle and high school students have missed school. "Our priority is to keep our schools open as we know that students learn better in-person than online," the message read. "Another priority is to ensure that our teachers have adequate time to prepare and to help students who are absent to catch up on their school work. This additional time for teachers will help us to accomplish both of these priorities."

The district now plans to have its elementary schools start at 9:05 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m. (shortened from its usual end time of 3:35 p.m.), while middle and high schools will start at 8 a.m. and end at 2 p.m. (down from its typical end time of 2:45 p.m.).

"We will reevaluate this schedule as conditions warrant," the message said. Cache County School District did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Schaffner explained that absenteeism due to COVID-19 is a major issue in schools, health care facilities and "everything" right now. "The hope is that by the middle to end of February, Omicron will have run its course and things can 'normalize' thereafter," he says. "But I think we're still in for difficult times in the next month or so."

Russo agreed. "Hopefully Omicron-driven high case numbers will be behind us over the next three to six weeks, depending on where you are in this country, which in turn should solve this problem," he said.

Students in L.A. public schools can no longer wear cloth masks at school

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the U.S., has banned cloth masks in its schools.

"Students will be required to wear a non-cloth mask with a nose wire at all times, including while participating in athletic activities," Megan K. Reilly, interim superintendent of the district said in a message to families over the weekend. "Schools will provide surgical-style masks for students and employees if they need them."

The new mask regulations, which went into effect on Monday, come on the heels of updated recommendations on masking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Masks and respirators (i.e., specialized filtering masks such as N95s) can provide different levels of protection depending on the type of mask and how they are used," the CDC said on its website. "Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection; layered, finely woven products offer more protection; well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection; and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection."

However, the CDC still recommends the use of cloth face masks, urging people to use masks with multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric, a nose wire and fabric that blocks light when it's held up to a bright light source.

"Los Angeles Unified continues to follow the latest guidance from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health," a district spokesperson told Yahoo Life when asked why the new masking rules went into effect. "This guidance ensures that our schools are as safe as possible for students and employees."

"Not all masks are created equal," Russo said. "Most cloth masks offer suboptimal protection against infection. Wearing masks with a high filtration efficiency that fit well and are comfortable so that they can be worn for prolonged periods of time will more effectively prevent infection."

Schaffner says the district's new guidance is "consistent with the CDC's recent recommendation."

Mass. teachers, school staff receive at-home rapid COVID-19 tests

A new program in Massachusetts is making at-home COVID-19 tests more easily accessible to teachers and school staff. The program started shipping rapid antigen tests for weekly use to teachers and staff this week and will open up to students next week.

Under the program, schools must continue to participate in symptomatic and pooled testing in order to receive the at-home test kits. "This new option will give Massachusetts school districts more flexibility and more resources in COVID-19 testing that have the most immediate impact to keep schools open," read a statement from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Guidance on the new testing program makes it clear that this is considered a better alternative to test-to-stay programs, where students and teachers must continue to test negative for COVID-19 to be able to be in classrooms. "Data show that transmission from close contacts is a rare occurrence in schools and that, therefore, extensive contact tracing and associated Test and Stay procedures are not adding significant value as a mitigation strategy despite the demand they place on the time of school health staff and school staff at large," the guidance said. "As a result, we are recommending that school health personnel increase their focus on identifying symptomatic individuals, rather than monitoring in-school close contacts who are unlikely to contract or spread the virus."

Adalja said that making COVID-19 tests readily available to school staff and students could help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. "The easier people can know their status, the easier it is to identify cases and intervene before transmission occurs," he explained.

"Individuals are infectious, but asymptomatic, for some portion or all of their bout of COVID," Russo said. "Access and use of at-home rapid tests hold the promise of identifying these individuals before they come to school, which in turn make schools safer."

A spokesperson from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told Yahoo Life that the program will stay in place through April 22. After that, the state will determine if any updates to the program are needed.

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