Thousands of students are in quarantine, university ethics professor resigns over his school's COVID-19 policy

·10 min read

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.

Thousands of students across the country are already in quarantine over COVID-19 exposures

Children in Southern states are already back to school and, with that, thousands are already in quarantine over COVID-19 exposures. In Mississippi, 20,000 students from 800 schools are in quarantine after being exposed to the virus, and 4,500 students have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 10,000 students and staff in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools district are in quarantine or isolation, just a week into the school year. There have been 2,640 COVID-19 cases in students and staff, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard on Friday.

A sign outside Hillcrest Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., advises that students are required to wear face masks unless the parents opt out of the mandate by writing a note to school officials.
Hillcrest Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., is requiring students to wear face masks unless the parents opt out of the mandate by writing a note to school officials. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The high numbers continue to roll in. More than 3,000 students and staff in New Orleans’s Public Schools are in quarantine, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. There are also 299 active COVID-19 cases in the district. 

Experts aren’t surprised that this is happening. “Unfortunately, given the high contagiousness and prevalence of the Delta variant, I think this will be a common occurrence once school resumes,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. 

But Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life that a lot of this comes down to the safety measures that a school district takes. “If a school takes proper precautions like enforcing mask mandates, this should not be common,” he says. “But so long as we have public policies that work against public safety, such as bans on mask mandates, we’re going to be putting people — and children — at risk.”

A California school district is requiring vaccines for all eligible students

California’s Culver City Unified School District is requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for eligible students. The school district made the announcement about its “revised protocol” on Tuesday. 

The vaccine mandate is included along with other policies, like required masking and weekly testing for staff and students, regardless of vaccination status. “We are mandating vaccines for all eligible staff and students,” District Superintendent Quoc Tran said on Twitter. “We will begin gathering vaccine status data immediately.” The district noted that the deadline for providing proof of vaccination is Friday, Nov. 19, “to give everyone the opportunity to make their vaccine plans.

“We appreciate your understanding as we monitor and respond quickly to the latest health guidance,” Tran said.

Tran told the Los Angeles Times that the vaccine mandate was created after the district had safety protocol discussions with the school board, teacher and employee unions, and parents. “We felt that doing the minimum is not quite good enough. We could do more,” Tran said. “We are in the context of constantly crowded places in school settings. The vaccine helps in case our children or staff members contract the virus. They have a lesser chance to be severely impacted.”

Infectious disease experts applaud the move. “It’s one important way to keep a school resilient to COVID-19 and it’s likely to become a trend, especially as vaccines approach full FDA licensure,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. 

Watkins agrees. “That is a fantastic idea that I wish all schools would do,” he says. 

University of Alabama ethics professor resigns over the school’s COVID-19 policy

Jeremy Fischer, a tenured ethics professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH), has resigned his position after expressing his disagreement with the school’s COVID-19 policy.

Fischer, who has been at the school for seven years, posted his resignation letter, which he addressed to the university president, provost, college dean and department chair, on Twitter

“We know what it takes to protect community health and very likely save lives, and we have the ability to do it; what is lacking is the collective willingness to do so,” he wrote. “And I find myself compelled to consider whether my continued relationship with UAH might render me complicit in a moral atrocity. Therefore, I have decided to resign my position as associate professor of philosophy, effective immediately.”

According to the UAH COVID-19 mitigation policy released in July, the school urges students and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but does not require it. Those who are unvaccinated are “expected” to wear face coverings indoors and practice social distancing “wherever possible,” and the school offers COVID-19 testing for those who are not vaccinated. The school updated its policy on face masks in early August to require that people wear face masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. “Vaccines remain key to combating COVID-19. If you have not yet been vaccinated, please consider doing so as soon as possible,” the update reads. 

Fischer tells Yahoo Life that he disagreed with several aspects of the school’s COVID-19 mitigation policy, including the lack of a testing plan for unvaccinated students, no social distancing regulations in indoor spaces and not allowing professors to move some classes online for the semester. “Some UAH faculty, including myself, were — in my case — or are scheduled to teach in person against their best judgment,” he says. 

Fischer is also concerned that school officials haven’t released vaccination status data that was collected from students, faculty and staff. “People on campus have an important interest in knowing the vaccination rate of the population they share spaces with,” he says. “What they are willing to do in a setting with 80 percent vaccination might reasonably differ from what they would do if that rate was 25 percent.”

“Ultimately, perhaps the most important failing of the COVID-19 mitigation policy is that it does not introduce either a vaccine mandate or a strong incentive to get vaccinated,” Fischer says. 

The University of Alabama, Huntsville, did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Fischer said he’s received “strong support” from his former colleagues, especially junior ones who are worried about facing retaliation for expressing their concerns. 

As of now, Fischer says, his future plans for employment are “not set.” 

Tennessee’s governor signs an executive order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order on Monday to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates set by their school boards or local health officials. 

“No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district.”

“Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being,” he continued. “Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID, but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach.”

Experts disagree with Lee’s logic. “That is a failure to uphold the duty to protect the public,” Kleinman says. “This is a public health crisis. These are tried and true methods of getting rid of a pandemic. If we had gotten it right in the first place, we’d be better able to respond now and shut it down.”

More than 5,500 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel in the state have publicly opposed the executive order by signing a petition addressed to the governor. 

One of the signatories is Dr. Meredith Duke, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She has three children who attend Williamson County Schools, where there was recently a tense face-off between doctors and anti-maskers at a school board meeting.

“We are questioning why the governor would undo the local boards’ mandates to try and keep children and teachers safe by following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Duke tells Yahoo Life. “It is contradictory that the National Guard is being called in to assist in patient care deficiencies, but he is actively sabotaging measures recommended by the AAP to limit the spread of COVID in schools and ultimately decrease stress on the system.”  

Duke points out that hospitalized patients are “overwhelmingly unvaccinated,” adding that “children are becoming sick, getting hospitalized, and they are spreading it to adults and the community.”

Watkins calls the motive a “politically motivated decision that does not have the interest of children at their core.” He continues, “True leadership involves making difficult decisions. Keeping kids safe should be everyone’s No. 1 priority.”

Georgia’s Ware County has halted school for two weeks due to COVID-19 cases

A school district in Georgia has shuttered all of its schools for two weeks due to outbreaks in its schools. Data shared by the district on Aug. 13 revealed that of the 5,905 students who attend in-person classes in the district, 76 students had tested positive for COVID-19 and 679 were in quarantine. An additional 67 staff members also tested positive for the virus. Students were given the option this year as to whether they wanted to do digital or in-person learning.

The school district announced on Facebook on Aug. 13 that there would be a two-week “pause” in learning due to the COVID-19 cases, although extracurricular practices and competitions would be allowed to continue. “Teachers, nurses and staff members were overwhelmed by the upheaval the spike caused, and we were having difficulty operating schools on a day-to-day basis,” the announcement read.

“Participation in extra-curricular activities is both voluntary and critical to the overall social and emotional health of students,” the announcement continued. “We are currently able to conduct and monitor these activities safely due to the strict safety protocols Georgia High School Association has in place. Historically, those protocols have worked exactly as intended, as we have seen few breakouts in cases among students participating in extracurricular activities. If we get to a point where we are unable to staff or safely conduct and monitor these activities, we will shut them down as well.”

The school said staff will return to work for “pre-planning” on Aug. 31. Students will return to school on Sept. 7. 

According to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation policy, students are “highly encouraged” to wear a mask in school, but there is no requirement that they do so. Additionally, “the school system does not know who has or hasn’t been vaccinated,” according to a response by the Ware County Schools on Facebook. 

Watkins says he’s concerned about further disruption of learning. “I worry that this will become commonplace as the school year progresses,” he says. Kleinman says it will be “inevitable if we’re not taking the appropriate responses to mitigate the pandemic in schools.’’

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