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.
Students in California need to get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine soon or face remote learning
The clock is ticking for students in some California public schools to get the COVID-19 vaccine in time for their district-mandated deadlines. Students ages 12 and up enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District will need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 10 or they will be sent to an independent study program. Doses are separated by at least three weeks, and the district says that students aren't considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second dose, which means students have less than a month to get started on their vaccination series.
Students ages 12 and up in the Sacramento Unified School District face a tighter deadline, with school officials requiring that they show proof of either a first or second dose of the vaccine by Nov. 30 or they'll be referred to an independent study program. The San Diego Unified School District is requiring that first doses be administered by Nov. 29, and the Oakland Unified School District requires students to be fully vaccinated by Jan.1, moving up its first-dose deadline within the next few weeks.
Doctors say more mandates like this may come in the future for other school districts.
Related video: COVID-19 vaccinations for children begin across U.S.
"We have already learned that counting on people to step up and get vaccinated by their own volition will not enable us to achieve the needed vaccination rates to make schools as safe as possible," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "Unfortunately the only way to do so will likely involve mandates."
Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that more widespread mandates are likely over time. "As the vaccine becomes more routine and gets full approval for those under the age of 16, it will likely become a routine childhood immunization and added to school requirements in the future," he says.
Dr. John Schreiber, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, agrees that it may be a while until the vaccine is required for more students. "The virus has only been around for two years. Let's start off with education and moving ahead that way," he tells Yahoo Life. "After we have more experience with the vaccine being safe and effective in more children, I do think it could be included in routine vaccination requirements."
Oklahoma school district fires 6 teachers for refusing to wear masks
Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) has terminated six employees for refusing to wear masks in school.
School superintendent Sean McDaniel adopted administrative regulation C-26-R2 in mid-August that required face masks to be worn on school property, in vehicles and at school-sponsored events regardless of vaccination status. District families were given the option to opt out for medical, religious or personal reasons. A school spokesperson tells Yahoo Life that only 171 of the district's 35,000 students have done this. All district staff were also allowed to request a medical accommodation, and only 12 of 5,000 did it.
On Aug. 26, six teachers were notified that McDaniel had recommended they be fired after they did not comply with the mask requirement. That recommendation was challenged in court by the teachers, but the court ruled that the district can require staff members to wear face masks.
On Wednesday, the district's board of education approved the recommendation to fire the teachers. "Since these employees continue to refuse to follow a reasonable directive over a law that is unsettled, OKCPS board members voted unanimously to move forward with termination of these six teachers," school officials said in a statement to Yahoo Life.
"Our district has invested heavily in a variety of safeguards in order to create layers of protection for our students and staff, including a focus on cleaning, air ionization, self-screening, access to PPE, contact tracing, testing and social distancing to the greatest extent possible. But science tells us that this is simply not enough," the statement says. "OKCPS continues to believe — and public health officials across the board agree — that masks along with a variety of other safeguards will give us the best chance to keep OKCPS students and staff safe, healthy and learning together in-person on our campuses."
The teachers have since hired lawyers to challenge their termination. Blake Sonne, general counsel for the Professional Oklahoma Educators and lead attorney for the case, tells Yahoo Life that the mask requirement violates Senate Bill 658, which prevents school districts from requiring masks, COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine passports unless there is a state of emergency declared by the governor." Many teachers were upset about what Oklahoma City was doing," Sonne says. "These teachers decided to stand up for what was right. It wasn't a mask issue — it was a rule of law issue." Sonne also points out that the teachers wore masks last year, but decided against it continuing to do so after Senate Bill 658 was passed.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt weighed in on Twitter, calling the firings "misguided" and saying that the mask mandate was "illegal."
In the middle of a teacher shortage, Oklahoma City Public schools fired six talented teachers because they wouldn't follow an illegal order.
These are the types of misguided decisions that are leaving many parents across the country so frustrated with their local schools! pic.twitter.com/teAMKXHE9I
— Governor Kevin Stitt (@GovStitt) November 5, 2021
The case has been referred to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which will hear the arguments in about a month. At that point, Sonne says, "we'll just amend claims for a wrongful termination."
Schreiber points out that masking policies protect both teachers and students. "Many teachers are of an age where they could be high risk," he says. "We don't want them to get sick, and even if they're immunized, there are some breakthrough infections." Teachers can also infect students. He cites a CDC study that found one infected teacher in Marin County, Calif., infected 12 of 24 students in her classroom when she removed her mask to read a story to them.
"Masking policies won't be in place forever," Schreiber says. "Eventually they won't be required anymore. But, for now, we need them to keep everyone safe."
All K-12 students are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations
Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorsed the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11. With this move, COVID-19 vaccines are now available to kindergarten through 12th grade students.
Also this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in updated guidance that immunization and universal masking are the top two strategies for safe in-person schooling.
So what does this mean for the future of schools and school safety?
Infectious disease experts expect that masking policies will eventually phase out as vaccination rates increase in kids and COVID-19 case counts drop. "As vaccination rates rise in school, it should be utilized as an off-ramp for masking policies and testing," Adalja says. "The higher the vaccination rate, the more flexibility schools will have in getting back to normalcy."
But Russo says high vaccination rates are needed to help kids get back to a sense of normalcy in school. "Mitigation measures will need to stay in place until we achieve high vaccination rates in school — more than 95 percent of students — and ideally community rates of infection are low," he says.
Sellick expects "test to stay" policies, where students can opt out of school-imposed quarantine if they test negative after a COVID-19 exposure, will become more common. "Eventually using masks in schools will become unnecessary, and then you'd test if you get sick," he says. "But we are not there yet in large parts of the country because there's so much community spread."
Some districts make plans to offer COVID-19 vaccine to 5- to 11-year-olds at school
Several school districts across the country are working to make the COVID-19 vaccine easily accessible to students. Ohio's Toledo Public Schools announced on Facebook that district officials will offer the vaccine at school-based health centers on Nov. 22 and Nov. 23, when school buildings are closed for Thanksgiving break. "We continue to promote wellness across the district and offer vaccination options to those who are interested," the district's Facebook page reads.
In California, National School District plans to offer the COVID-19 vaccine at all 10 of its schools in partnership with the National City government. "Students deserve to feel safe at school, and we believe this opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will provide students the protection they deserve," Leighangela Brady, superintendent of the National School District, told San Diego news station KFMB-TV.
Public schools across New York City are also offering pop-up vaccine clinics in schools for students, starting as early as Monday.
Doctors applaud this level of accessibility for students. "Maximizing accessibility to vaccination will remove an important barrier and undoubtedly increase vaccination rates," Russo says. Adalja agrees. "In order to make vaccine uptake optimal, increasing the convenience of scheduling vaccination is really important," he says. "Schools can be a very efficient means to make it as simple as possible to get vaccinated."
Having vaccines available at school also creates less of a hassle for parents, Schreiber says. "Not everyone can get to the pediatrician's office, and even then it's going to be crowded," he says. "Having other sites is critical for access."
New legislation makes it difficult for Tennessee schools to enforce mask mandates
Tennessee's General Assembly approved a new bill over the weekend that makes it difficult for school districts in the state to impose mask mandates.
The legislation, called SB9014, has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee to be signed. If it's signed into law, three conditions will have to be met in order for school boards to be allowed to approve a 14-day mask mandate:
The governor has to declare a state of emergency due to COVID-19
The county that the district is in has to have a rolling infection rate of at least 1,000 cases for every 100,000 people over 14 days
The principal has to request a universal masking policy
"It's unfortunate that, in parts of the country, there’s been such politicization about this," Schreiber says. "The data is good that universal masking greatly reduces the spread in schools and in the community — masks work."
Adalja recommends that parents in affected communities get their children vaccinated against COVID-19. Schreiber agrees. "If they're immunized, there will be much less of a risk that children will get sick," he says.
This story was originally published on Nov. 5, 2021, at 2:12 p.m. ET and has been updated to include a comment from Blake Sonne, general counsel for the Professional Oklahoma Educators.
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