Brown University stops in-person dining over COVID outbreak; University of Kansas students demand campus vaccine requirement

·9 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.

Brown University stops in-person dining over increase in COVID-19 cases

Rhode Island's Brown University has temporarily stopped in-person dining on campus because of a rise in COVID-19 cases. Senior officials at the school shared the news on Monday in an update to COVID-19 restrictions on campus, noting that the school had 82 positive asymptomatic cases among undergraduate students in the past seven days. 

"To date, very few Brown employees have tested positive, and there is no evidence of spread in classrooms," the update reads. As a result of the increase in cases, Brown administrators announced that the school will "pause" in-person dining at all campus eateries and transition to a "grab and go" program for all meals. The pause is expected to change after the number of positive cases drops, administrators said.

The school also implemented new rules, including increasing the frequency of testing on campus to twice a week, mandating indoor masking for everyone regardless of vaccination status, limiting social gatherings to no more than five people and requiring masks outdoors when students interact with people from outside campus. 

Brown requires that all staff members and students on campus be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, the school allows for medical and religious exemptions. A Brown University spokesperson tells Yahoo Life that there is a 98.3 percent vaccination rate for students and a 95.6 percent vaccination rate for staff.

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that temporarily halting in-person dining is a smart move. "When masks are down, that’s when students are at risk," he says. "I've always worried about transmission in dining halls — kids are talking and no one is cautious. It's an at-risk setting."

It is a good sign, though, that the cases detected have been asymptomatic, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "Many of these positives are being picked up on routine screening and are not necessarily concerning if they are occurring, or example, in low-risk individuals so long as there are testing and isolation protocols in place," he says. "Social interaction is going to lead to transmission, especially with unvaccinated students, but it is going to be very hard to curtail all social interaction amongst students, even if in-person dining is no longer an option."

University of Delaware does not allow professors to tell students when a classmate tests positive for COVID-19

The University of Delaware has a new policy in place that prohibits professors from telling a class when a fellow student has tested positive for COVID-19. The policy was enacted as the school reported 145 new COVID-19 cases on campus this week. 

University of Delaware has a 91 percent vaccination rate among students and an 88 percent vaccination rate among staff. 

University spokesperson Andrea Boyle Tippett tells Yahoo Life that the school put the policy in place due to concerns about "privacy and inciting panic."

"We had a number of professors who were finding out that an individual tested positive and telling the whole class that someone in their class had tested positive," she says. "In a small class of 10, if one person isn't there, it's obvious who that person is."

"We also wanted to avoid panic among the students and make sure that the contact tracers could do their jobs effectively," Tippett continues. "Any student who was in close contact with someone who tested positive will be contacted but, in larger classrooms, not everyone will be."

Tippett points out that students wear masks "all of the time" in class and that "contact tracing is not showing that the transmission is happening in classrooms."

Adalja says that it's important for schools to "promptly" tell students when they may have been in contact with a positive COVID-19 case. "This should be the norm," he says. "Notification allows people to take protective action quickly."

Maryland's Montgomery County schools loosen strict quarantine requirements

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland have loosened the district's quarantine requirements when someone develops symptoms of COVID-19 in a classroom. Previously, students who came into contact with someone who had COVID-19 symptoms needed to quarantine for 10 days and monitor their symptoms.

The new guidance, which was shared during a Montgomery County Council meeting on Tuesday, says that students who show signs of COVID-19 at school will be given a rapid test for the virus. Only those who test positive and their close contacts will be sent home. Under the past guidance, entire classrooms could be quarantined as someone waited for results of their COVID-19 test, according to Washington D.C. radio station WTOP News

Face masks are required for anyone who enters the district's buildings, including students and staff.

During the first two weeks of school, 121 students in the district tested positive for COVID-19 out of 160,000 enrolled students. More than 1,700 students were placed in quarantine under the school system's previous guidance, according to WTOP News. 

Montgomery County has seen 1,583 new COVID-19 cases so far this month, according to a regional COVID-19 dashboard.

Adalja applauds the move. "Quarantining in schools can be something that can be minimized if you deploy tests strategically," he says. "When it comes to schooling, quarantines can be very disruptive, so they should be avoided through the use of aggressive testing to minimize the amount of students that need quarantine."

Some Iowa schools will require masks for K-12 students following judge's ruling

Several school districts in Iowa, including the Iowa City Community School District and Des Moines Public Schools, have reinstated masks mandates after a federal judge ordered the state of Iowa this week to stop enforcing a law that keeps school boards from requiring masks on campuses. 

"Because Plaintiffs have shown that Iowa Code section 280.31’s ban on mask mandates in schools substantially increases their risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and that due to their various medical conditions they are at an increased risk of severe illness or death, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that an irreparable harm exists," Judge Robert Pratt wrote in his order.

Groups of people walk in the Court Ave. district of Des Moines, Iowa, after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law that bans future mask mandates for schools, cities and counties, May 20, 2021.  REUTERS/Rachel Mummey
People walk in the Court Ave. district of Des Moines, Iowa. (Rachel Mummey/Reuters)

"Per guidance from the CDC, universal masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status, is required in District buildings and on District campuses," the Iowa City Community School District's mandate reads. "Face coverings will be available for students, staff and visitors at each building."

Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart announced in a letter sent home to parents on Tuesday that the mask mandate would again be in place, starting on Wednesday. “The court’s decision to set aside Iowa’s ban on school districts being able to protect children in our care is welcome news," he wrote. "As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in Iowa, our families and staff have expressed their concerns about schools not being able to require minimal, effective mitigation steps, such as wearing a mask, in order to keep people healthy and safe. With today’s ruling, as Superintendent I will reinstate a mask mandate — as we had in place for most of last school year — for all students, staff and visitors to Des Moines Public Schools." 

The state of Iowa has seen 11,588 new COVID-19 cases from Sept. 6 to Sept. 13, according to state data.

"I am a fan of mask and vaccine mandates," Russo says. "That's the best way for us to protect ourselves and our children. People opposed to masks and vaccines say that COVID-19 poses a small risk to children. That is absolutely true, but we don't really know the long-term consequences of children getting COVID — and we won't know for years. We need to err on the side of caution."

Mask mandates in schools can also help reduce cases in the community, Adalja says. "Masking in schools when there are unvaccinated students present can help to keep community spread from engulfing a school and allowing in-person learning to be less disrupted," he says. 

University of Kansas students protest in favor of campus-wide vaccination mandate

A group of students from the University of Kansas gathered on campus on Sunday to demand school officials implement a vaccination mandate on campus. The protest was organized by Vaccinate KU, an on-campus activist group that previously started a petition to request that university officials require students and staff to show proof of vaccination or wear a mask.

Vaccine mandates are currently banned in Kansas, under state law. 

The organization shared on Instagram that it was organizing the protest "because the University of Kansas has been reluctant to go to court to require COVID-19 vaccinations and has been hesitant to instate other COVID-19 safety precautions."

More than 80 percent of students who live in University of Kansas student housing are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to information on the school's COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard also shows that 12 people tested positive for the virus the week of Sept. 2 through 8, the most recent data available.

The University of Kansas has an indoor mask mandate in place and currently offers free COVID-19 testing on campus to students and staff, as well as vaccinations through student health services. The school also enters vaccinated students who upload their proof of vaccination into a weekly drawing for prizes. 

School officials state on the university website that they are also using "enhanced cleaning methods and schedules" on campus, posting hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in all classrooms and around campus and providing personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies to students and employees. 

A University of Kansas spokesperson did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment. 

"Vaccination is the best way to put the COVID-19 pandemic into the rearview mirror," Adalja says. "Universities should want to be as resilient as possible to this pandemic, and requiring vaccination for students and staff is the best way to do that." The students requesting a vaccine mandate are "on the right side of science," Russo says, adding, "All the power to them."

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