Texas district with hundreds of COVID cases stays open despite public health warnings, colleges require vaccines after FDA announcement

·11 min read
A student before entering Benbrook Elementary School in Houston on the first day of school on Aug. 23. (Reuters/Go Nakamura)
A student before entering Benbrook Elementary School in Houston on the first day of school on Aug. 23. (Reuters/Go Nakamura)

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.

Texas school district with hundreds of COVID cases stays open, despite public health warnings

Texas's Leander Independent School District has stayed open through an intense COVID-19 outbreak across its schools, despite warnings from public health officials that it needed to temporarily shut down to control the spread of the virus. 

The school district saw 303 new positive cases this week, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. In an email to the district on Tuesday, Williamson County & Cities Health District Medical Director Amanda Norwood urged local schools to close. "This level of spread is unsustainable for a school district and for the surrounding county," she wrote. 

The district responded with an update to its community online. "At this time, we are keeping schools open and focusing on individual classrooms impacted by clusters of positive cases," the notice reads. "It is possible that whole classrooms at the elementary level may be required to access remote conferencing with their teacher. We will communicate those details directly to impacted staff, teachers, and families."

The notice said that the district "shares the concerns" of the local health department but added, "At this time, we do not believe a districtwide closure meets the needs of our students and families. While we have some pockets of concern, we also have several campuses with few positive cases."

Related video: North Texas schools work to combat COVID-19 slide

The district plans to continue to require masks in its buildings, although the statement mentions that there is an opt-out form for the mandate. "Should the number of cases continue to increase we may be forced to close multiple classrooms and whole schools," the notice says. "This will have implications on academic learning as well as extra-curricular activities. We need everyone to work together and implement as many mitigation measures as possible to stop the spread. Our plea is for the community to come together so we can stay open and stay safe."

The news coincides with the Texas Education Association requiring schools to tell parents when there is a positive COVID-19 case in their child's school or extracurricular activities. Initial guidance that was released earlier this month did not explicitly require notification. 

Under the new guidance, which was released on Aug. 19, districts must continue to report positive COVID-19 cases to local health departments and the state. The Texas Education Association also said it will not reprimand schools that enforce mask mandates, which have been banned in the state. The ban, which was created by Gov. Greg Abbott, is currently tied up in litigation in the state. 

Notifying parents of these COVID-19 cases is crucial to help prevent further spread of the virus, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "Contact tracing departments can be overwhelmed," he says. "If parents can be well informed, they can do a combination of appropriate quarantining, testing and monitoring to help minimize more cases."

Dr. Beth Natt, regional clinical director of Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that the updated guidance is "fabulous news."

"It's really important because it will allow families to do appropriate quarantining," she says. "Children may not have significant symptoms — this can help decrease the spread, even if they're not symptomatic."

Several colleges announce they will now require the COVID-19 vaccine for students and staff

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine received full FDA approval on Monday, and a number of colleges have already updated their vaccination policies to mandate the shot. 

The Ohio State University revealed on Tuesday — just one day after the approval — that it will now require the COVID-19 vaccine for students, faculty and staff. "Ohio State will now require every student, faculty and staff member to be vaccinated against COVID-19," university president Kristina M. Johnson announced in a message to the school community. "The university is taking this step because vaccines are the safest and most effective form of protection against COVID-19. We are focused on enhancing the health and safety of our community. This step will increase our ability to support our students in continuing their educational experiences as well as help protect our current and the state’s future workforce."

The University of Louisiana System, which encompasses nine schools including Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University and University of New Orleans, announced on Monday that the Louisiana Department of Health has granted its request to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the schedule of required immunizations for students enrolled in the system. "The FDA’s approval has long been the standard for pharmaceutical safety and efficacy, and I hope the agency’s endorsement will reassure those of you who have yet to be vaccinated to do so," wrote Joseph Savoie, president of the University of Louisiana System in a message to the school community. "Our return to normalcy depends on minimizing the impact COVID-19 continues to have. Protecting our wider community requires that each of us does our part." (Savoie pointed out that the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines would also be accepted for COVID-19 vaccines.)

Worth noting: Louisiana state law makes this mandate tricky to enforce. Under the law, students can provide proof of vaccination, a doctor’s note citing a medical condition that precludes getting the vaccine or a “written dissent” form that they object to getting the vaccine.

New York's SUNY school system now officially requires that all students and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. The school's vaccination mandate had been contingent on full FDA approval.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that he expects more schools will follow after the Pfizer vaccine's FDA approval. "I think employers, medical centers, all kinds of groups will increasingly require people to be vaccinated," he says. 

"The school setting is critically important to protect students, faculty and staff, as well as the community," Russo says. "It's a downstream effect. If everyone starts doing this, then we're really going to put a dent in this thing."

University of Virginia has disenrolled 193 students who didn't get the COVID-19 vaccine

The University of Virginia has let some students go from its roster who didn't meet the school's COVID-19 vaccine requirement. 

School spokesman Wesley Hester tells Yahoo Life that 99 percent of UVA students who were eligible to get vaccinated complied with the school's vaccination policy and are eligible to start classes, a fact that "delighted" school administrators. "Only 193 students were disenrolled because they did not comply with the university’s vaccination requirement," Hester says. "The remaining 24,033 complied, which includes 23,482 fully vaccinated students. Of the disenrolled students, only 48 had registered for courses. The remaining 145 students had not registered for any credit hours and likely did not intend to come to the University this semester. That is consistent with the number of students who typically decide not to enroll each fall for a variety of reasons."

Students had until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday to comply with the school's vaccination policy in order to be re-enrolled. And, for those who chose not to, they can return next semester "provided that they are in compliance with our requirements by that time," Hester says.

"We first announced this vaccination requirement on May 20 and the deadline for compliance was July 1," Hester says. "Since then, students received multiple reminders about this policy and the need to either be vaccinated or request a medical or religious exemption. Students who remained out of compliance after the deadline received multiple communications in the form of emails, texts, phone calls, and in some cases phone calls to their parents."

Overall, Hester says, school officials "have been delighted with the response and our very high vaccination rates, which are significantly above the 90 percent threshold recommended by our public health advisors. As of today, 99 percent of our students have complied with the requirement, with almost 97 percent fully vaccinated. In addition, 92 percent of UVA’s Academic Division faculty and staff are fully vaccinated, including 96 percent of teaching and research faculty."

An Ohio school district closed for the week due to a high number of student illnesses and absences

Ohio's Fairfield Local Schools closed this week because of an "escalating number" of student and staff absences. On Monday, 12 percent of elementary, 25 percent of middle school and 17 percent of high school students in the district were absent, school officials said on Facebook

"In one week we have seen our absentee rate amongst students rise by 315 percent," school officials wrote on Facebook. "The cause is due to multiple viruses flowing through our school. Of course COVID is a factor but we have rhinovirus and bronchial infections at a high rate as well."

The school system also said that it will be making updates to safety protocols for nine days, starting when students return on Monday, including requiring face coverings for all students, faculty and staff, temperature checks at the door and daily deep cleans. "The health and safety of our students and staff is our number one priority. While the closure this week helped reduce transmission of the viruses that hit us, there is still substantial community spread," school superintendent Tim Dettwiller wrote on Facebook. "I understand no one wants to wear a face covering, including me; however, if we can wear the face coverings for nine days and implement the other health precautions noted above I believe we can keep our schools open and safe for our children to be here."

Natt says that closing school temporarily "may help" tamp down the spread of illness. "Any time you’re getting a lot of people for a period of time, there is a high risk of spread," she says. "Waiting may help to keep things lower for a little longer, simply by decreasing the mixing."

Russo says he expects that more school systems will face similar closures this year, especially when they don't have protocols in place, like mask mandates. "There's no question that Delta is going to be around in significant numbers," he says. "But schools that don't have optimal mitigation plans in place will close. This virus is too infectious."

Some schools in Oregon are delaying the start of school due to COVID-19

A school district and high school in Oregon have delayed the start of school because of staffing issues related to COVID-19.

On Aug. 20, the Culver School District announced that the start of school will be pushed back to Sept. 20 to allow the district time to comply with state vaccine and mask mandates. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced last week that all school teachers and staff need to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We will comply with the mandate for now, bind together with other agencies and school districts to encourage our state entities to change their approach, and look forward to better tomorrows," the district wrote in a letter to the school community. Pushing the opening of school back to Sept. 20 "provides nine additional days to fully plan and prepare for staffing challenges caused by the new vaccine mandate. Our goal is to keep every employee," the district said.

South Umpqua High School in Myrtle Creek, Ore., is also delaying opening due to staffing issues. School officials announced on Facebook that "multiple" staff members are in isolation or quarantine and that a staff member died from COVID-19. "We do not have the number of staff needed to provide in-person instruction," the message reads, noting that there will be a one-week delay in the opening of school.

New York City Public Schools announced a vaccine mandate for all school staff

New York City Public Schools, the largest public school system in the country, announced this week that all public school teachers must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The school system previously allowed teachers who didn't want to get vaccinated to get tested weekly instead — that option has been removed. 

About 148,000 school employees will need to get at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. "We’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that everyone is safe,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a press conference.

Vaccine mandates "come in a variety of flavors," Schaffner says, adding that "this is a very tough flavor."

Russo calls the move a "great idea," noting that mandating the vaccine will "protect teachers and staff — the most vulnerable individuals in the school setting — along with students." This move, he says, will likely help lower transmission in schools. 

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