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.
Oregon school superintendent fired after enforcing state mask mandate
A superintendent in a small Oregon school system has been fired after enforcing his state’s mask mandate. Adrian School District superintendent Kevin Purnell was informed he was no longer employed during a closed-door school board meeting on Monday, just one week after the start of the school year.
The Malheur Enterprise, which had reporters at the event, said the board voted 4-1 to fire Purnell, who had worked for the district for 14 years and had been in his current role for three years. The board did not give a public reason for Purnell’s termination, but board chairman Eddie Kincade told the newspaper that the decision was reached because of Purnell’s failure to follow directions from the board.
Purnell teared up while addressing a crowd after the meeting, saying that there wasn’t great communication between himself and the school board. “Ultimately, I feel that I have lost my way, and it began to consume me,” he said. “I have become tired. Tired of disappointing myself, my family, my friends, my colleagues.”
Purnell recently enforced a schoolwide mask mandate from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, which some have suggested led to his dismissal. Purnell did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, nor did a representative from the Adrian School District.
The state reported 2,827 new confirmed and presumptive COVID-19 cases, according to Wednesday data from the Oregon Health Authority. Eighty-five of the 2,827 cases are in Malheur County, where the school district is located.
Several people have spoken out against Purnell’s firing on the school’s Facebook page.
“This school district shows reckless disregard for student safety during a pandemic. They fired their superintendent for following the law. Abhorrent school board members (except one). And they did it behind closed doors,” one wrote. “They’re partisan and won’t follow CDC guidelines,” another said.
“They fired someone because he wanted to keep the kids safe by wearing masks. Sad. Never visit that town and don’t spend money there or online. Get those board members out of there.” Another chimed in with, “If you get hired by the district make sure you’re willing to disobey state laws to keep your job. They’ll fire you otherwise.”
Liberty University under campuswide quarantine
In Lynchburg, Va., Liberty University is currently in the middle of a schoolwide quarantine after COVID-19 cases spiked on campus. The private evangelical school, which doesn’t require students or staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, recently removed its building capacity restrictions and social distancing and mask requirements.
According to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are currently 430 active student cases of COVID-19 and 58 active cases among faculty and staff. Overall, more than 2 percent of students have an active case of the virus. Classes began at Liberty on Aug. 23.
Liberty started its quarantine, which it calls a “temporary mitigation period,” on Aug. 30 and plans to run it until Sept. 10. During that time, classes will be held online, large indoor gatherings have been suspended, and indoor dining locations have a takeout option. “The university will continue to encourage social hygiene practices that aid in reducing the spread of disease, including physical distancing and wearing a mask,” the school says online. “The university will also be announcing upcoming vaccine clinics to be offered on campus.”
A Liberty University publicist did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. According to Thursday data from the Virginia Department of Health, there are 4,255 new COVID-19 cases in the state.
Infectious disease experts say that schools that don’t require COVID-19 vaccines will follow a similar path. “Without a high degree of vaccination, it’s inevitable that certain campuses will have cases and have to take measures such as quarantine,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
Liberty’s current situation “is a good example why schools should require vaccination and what happens when they don’t,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.
Student at Coastal Carolina University goes viral on TikTok after expressing concerns she’ll fall behind in school
Coastal Carolina University student Jessica Bauwens has gone viral on TikTok for opening up about quarantining at school after testing positive for COVID-19.
Bauwens, whose TikTok has been liked more than 120,000 times, said that her school is “not accommodating students academically” who need to quarantine. “I understand the university wants us in person but when you fail to accommodate the rather large number of students who are positive and missing class, I question Coastal’s true intentions of students’ academic success,” Bauwens says in the video.
Bauwens says she’s concerned that she’ll fall behind in school because there aren’t options to tune in to class. “One of my classes is strictly lecture-based,” she says. “There [are] no PowerPoints. There is nothing else to go off of aside from the lecture. I am now learning from somebody else’s notes because there is no other way for me to attend that lecture.”
Bauwens also started a Change.org petition that’s received more than 4,300 signatures. “If students can provide a doctor’s note, are awaiting testing results and can provide the appointment confirmation, or a positive COVID test, we should be provided with Zoom links to attend our synchronous in-person classes,” she wrote in the petition. “Furthermore, these absences should be considered excused. Students can be dropped from classes due to unexcused absences in the time it takes for test results to come back.” Bauwens also urged the school to develop a “clear policy” for every professor to follow if a student tests positive for COVID-19.
Bauwens didn’t respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. A Coastal Carolina University publicist sent Yahoo Life a copy of an email sent to students from Dan Ennis, the school’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
In the email, Ennis cites the school’s instructional guidance for faculty, which reads, “If a student is placed in quarantine or isolation in response to a positive Covid-19 test or contract tracing, those absences (assuming documentation) would be excused, and faculty should work with absent students as they would in any other excused absence situation.” The email also says that students who suspect they have COVID-19 and report their suspicions to student health services will also be excused.
“Accommodations are determined by the content of the class and the instructional expertise of the faculty member,” the email says. “For some classes, streaming to students who are absent might be the best option. In other classes, the instructor may set up separate office hours, review sessions, or alternative assignments.”
“There is not a one-size-fits all solution; patience and flexibility on the part of both students and faculty are necessary to allow this university to continue to operate in the face of a serious public health challenge,” the email says.
According to the university, 62 students and 13 employees tested positive for COVID-19 between Aug. 19 and Aug. 25. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 3,572 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,657 probable cases as of Aug. 31.
It’s important for schools to have good procedures in place to make quarantining as easy as possible for students, Watkins says. “Quarantines are necessary for the greater good of the school and campuswide community,” he says. And, if students don’t feel that they’ll be easily accommodated, there’s a chance they may not be honest about their COVID-19 status, Dr. John Sellick, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “Schools have an obligation to make sure there’s an alternative method for people who are sick,” he says.
Study: Unmasked teacher caused COVID-19 outbreak at school
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that an elementary school teacher in Marin County, Calif., caused a COVID-19 outbreak in class in May after lowering their mask to read to students.
The teacher, who was not publicly identified, developed symptoms of COVID-19 on May 19 but kept working for two days before getting tested. During that time, the teacher read out loud without a mask to students, despite a school requirement to wear masks indoors.
The teacher tested positive for the Delta variant of the coronavirus on May 21, and 12 of the teacher’s 24 students tested positive a few days after. Other staff members, students, parents and siblings also developed cases linked to the teacher, for a total of 27 cases.
Parents told the CDC that the students were good at masking in class, although details on whether the students were masked during story time are unclear.
Experts stress the importance of vaccination and mask usage in schools. “If the students were vaccinated or masked, such an event would be rare,” Adalja says. However, most elementary school students aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s why it’s so crucial for schools to have procedures to lower the spread of the virus, Watkins says.
“Masks are very effective at preventing the wearer from getting infected. It also prevents a person who is infected from spreading it to others,” he says. “In other words, masks are win-win. There are no downsides to wearing a mask.”
Parents in Tennessee school district hold ‘sick-out’ to protest lack of COVID-19 safety protocols
Some parents at Tennessee’s Knox County Schools held a “sick-out” on Monday, keeping their children home from school to protest the district’s lack of COVID-19 safety protocols.
More than 18 percent of students were absent that day, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. That prompted the suggestion of a mask mandate at Wednesday night’s board meeting, but it was voted down. “School is mandatory but there are other options,” board member Patti Bounds said. “Yes, it is mandatory but keeping students in masks for eight hours is harmful for children physically, socially and emotionally.”
There are currently 890 active COVID-19 cases out of 61,526 students in the district, according to the Knox County Schools COVID-19 dashboard.
A representative for the school did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.
Currently, Knox County Schools does not have a mask mandate in place. The district says online that it will not ask students and staff about their COVID-19 vaccination status. “The Tennessee Department of Health recommends the use of face coverings; however, the district recognizes that this is a family decision,” it says. “The district strongly supports the recommendation that teachers, students, school personnel, and visitors use face coverings when indoors and physical distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status.”
Sellick points out that schools that do not have good COVID-19 protocols in place will continue to see cases. “It impacts more than the kids and schools. Kids bring that home to people, and then they get sick,” he says.
Adalja says that this can ultimately disrupt learning for students. “If schools do not have COVID-19 protocols in place and there is high-level community transmission occurring, cases will occur among students,” he says. “Then there will be a push to go to virtual learning and another school year will be disrupted.”
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