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.
L.A. County elementary schools can reopen, but school officials are pushing back
Elementary schools in Los Angeles County can now reopen, according to COVID-19 threshold levels set by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The agency made the announcement on Monday. "This encouraging news means that dozens of elementary schools will be permitted to reopen for in-class instruction for students grades K-6 as early as this week," the statement reads. "All schools wishing to reopen must submit plans to the County Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health certifying that they have implemented a full range of safety measures to permit a safe reopening."
But the news has gotten pushback from school officials. Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has repeatedly said that schools will not reopen until teachers and staff can be vaccinated against COVID-19. In a statement released on Wednesday, Beutner says that the vaccine "plays such a critical role in reopening schools as safely as possible."
10 days ago, I announced a plan to reopen schools in 60 days. The clock is ticking. We’ve done our part – school campuses are ready. The community is doing its part to bring down levels of the virus. The final critical piece is vaccinations for all who work in schools. pic.twitter.com/jkwlidM3ld
— Austin Beutner (@AustinLASchools) February 17, 2021
Beutner shared his statement on Twitter and received mixed reactions in the comments. "No, you need to demand teachers come back to work now!" one wrote. "I applaud your caution Mr. Beutner. Ignore greed-monsters," another said. "Recently, I had five students with COVID. Low-risk doesn't mean no-risk and it's ok until it's your child or loved one who gets the virus."
Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that she supports schools reopening to in-person learning "for the health and well-being of our children." And, she adds, she's "in favor of reopening the schools now with all safety measures in place, even if teachers and administrators have not yet been vaccinated."
"We have data showing that schools are not super-spreader locations, especially with younger children," Fisher says. "It's very frustrating to families. There's a lot of emotion, but the science is being ignored."
Dr. Lawrence C. Kleinman, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says that it all "depends on the details." If everyone wears masks and is spaced out, and there is good ventilation "it can be done safely," he says, adding "these things are all balancing risks and benefits." Vaccination of teachers and staff is a helpful part of these mitigation strategies, he says, but it's not the only thing.
Ohio's governor threatens to redirect vaccines for teachers if schools don't reopen by March 1
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine implied on Twitter that he would reroute vaccines intended for teachers to other groups if schools do not open for in-person learning by March 1.
"We said to our school districts that we would take some of the precious vaccine allotted to Ohio and vaccinate teachers and other staff as long as they'd be back in school full-time or in a hybrid model no later than March 1," DeWine wrote. "It's important for our kids to get back in the classroom when their parents are ready to send them back. Kids are falling behind. There are social and mental health consequences. That's why we prioritized vaccines for schools. Otherwise, they'd go to a more vulnerable group."
We said to our school districts that we would take some of the precious vaccine allotted to Ohio and vaccinate teachers and other staff as long as they'd be back in school full-time or in a hybrid model no later than March 1.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) February 12, 2021
DeWine also said in a press conference that it is "simply unacceptable" that some school districts, including Cleveland's, may not resume in-person classes by March 1. The Cleveland School District will make an announcement on reopening on Friday, a spokesperson told Yahoo Life.
While Kleinman says he "doesn't believe in bullying," he also says that vaccinating teachers as part of a COVID-19 mitigation strategy "makes sense."
"Reopening needs to be a balance of local considerations and policy, and if you can't do it safely, you shouldn't be doing it at all," he says. However, Kleinman says, other strategies like social distancing, mask-wearing and careful hand hygiene are important too.
Fisher agrees that DeWine's threatening approach isn't the best. "As a physician, the thought of withholding something that could keep somebody safe is the wrong way to go about it," she says. "Lots of people need and deserve the vaccine."
Auburn University plans to resume in-person classes as usual in the fall
Alabama's Auburn University revealed this week that it plans to have a "typical" semester of school in fall 2021. In a statement released to Yahoo Life, school officials say that they are "constructing an academic framework that leverages the structure of on-campus courses with the flexibility of online instruction."
The statement says that the school officials are considering "multiple scenarios that will, we hope, allow our campus to resume many of our pre-COVID operations." Still, the school will likely continue with COVID-19 mitigation measures. "Understanding that the pandemic will remain a factor in our planning for the foreseeable future, we will continue to promote prevention measures and other protocols throughout the spring, summer and fall semesters," the statement says. "As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more available between now and August, we know this additional measure will provide our campus with further protection against the spread of the virus."
Auburn officials say that the school will "continue to work closely with public health experts" during planning and that they're "prepared to adjust if needed."
It's unclear if other universities plan to do the same. Harvard University, for example, has released a "tentative calendar" for the 2021-2022 school year but makes no mention of online classes. UCLA also has a normal-appearing 2021-2022 calendar available online, and so does the University of Texas at Austin.
It's difficult to predict right now what life will be like in fall 2021, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. It will "probably be OK" for in-person classes to resume in the same style as they did before the pandemic if vaccinations continue to be available to the public, he says. But, Watkins adds, "we can't be sure at this point."
Still, it's likely that "fall of 2021 will be close to normalcy for many institutions as vaccination will have progressed greatly by that point," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "It’s not as if there will be zero cases of COVID, but there will be no public health emergency by that point in the developed world," he adds.
UC Berkeley lifts intense 2-week quarantine for students that included a ban on outdoor exercise
Officials at the University of California, Berkeley, announced this week that a strict two-week quarantine for students has been lifted. The quarantine largely kept students in their residences, allowing them to venture out only for food — returning immediately to their rooms — and medical care, including twice-weekly COVID-19 testing. The quarantine happened as the result of an outbreak on campus.
"You may NOT leave your room for solo outdoor exercise," said a Feb. 8 notice to students about the quarantine. "We are working with the City of Berkeley to determine whether outdoor exercise may be permitted, and we will provide more information on this in the near future."
Now that the quarantine has been lifted, university officials are urging students to do their best to prevent the spread of COVID-19. "We wish to remind everyone that it’s still critical to limit in-person interaction to your household grouping, practice physical distancing, wash hands frequently and wear face coverings," an email to students announcing the end of quarantine said. "Our hope is that if all residents continue to practice these important measures, we won’t have to revisit self-sequestration in the future."
UC Berkeley isn't the only college that has banned outdoor exercise: the University of Massachusetts-Amherst announced earlier this month that students would face "removal from residence halls and/or suspension" if they violated the rules of the campus's self-sequester mandate, which says that students "must stay in their residences, both on and off campus, except to get meals, undergo twice-weekly COVID testing or to attend medical appointments."
While these quarantines are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, the outdoor exercise ban "doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "Outdoors is pretty safe," he says, adding that asking students to wear masks when they're outdoors "should make it as safe as it gets."
Strict quarantines can make an impact on COVID-19 cases, but "there's hope that as the COVID-19 vaccine gets disseminated into the college-age population, the notion of quarantine will become less relevant," Kleinman tells Yahoo Life.
Often, schools will institute strict quarantine rules because they're "easier to enforce" than less strict versions, Kleinman says. Still, he adds, these will likely become a thing of the past with more time and vaccination.
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