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More children than ever could be in classrooms this summer; new infections reach pre-'pandemic' levels: Latest COVID-19 updates

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More children than ever could be in classrooms for summer school this year to make up for lost learning after U.S. school districts struggled to develop online learning programs during the pandemic.

School districts nationwide are expanding their summer programs and offering bonuses to get teachers to take part. Under the most recent federal pandemic relief package, the Biden administration is requiring states to devote billions of dollars to summer programs.

The U.S. Education Department said it is too early to know how many students will sign up. But the number is all but certain to exceed the estimated 3.3 million who went to mandatory or optional summer school in 2019 before the pandemic.

Aja Purnell-Mitchell let her three kids decide whether to go back to school during summer break. All wanted to go. Purnell-Mitchell saw a litany of positives in the decision.

“Getting them back into it, helping them socialize back with their friends, maybe meet some new people, and, of course, pick up the things that they lacked on Zoom,” the Durham County, North Carolina, mother said.

Also in the news:

►Retail chain Walmart says it will close its doors for the second year in a row on Thanksgiving Day as a "'thank you' to employees for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic."

One-third of the 559,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy in May happened at restaurants and bars, an encouraging sign for workers in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality industry.

►Starting Wednesday, vaccinated American tourists will be able to visit France sans quarantine, provided they show a negative PCR test upon arrival.

►As vacationers are expected to flock to the island this summer, non-vaccinated travelers to Maui will no longer be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.

►Health experts are urging parents to vaccinate their teenagers against COVID-19 after a report shows rising hospitalization rates.

►"Mission: Impossible 7" has shut down production again because of positive COVID-19 tests.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has more than 33.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 597,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: Over 173 million cases and over 3.7 million deaths. More than 137.4 million Americans have been fully vaccinated – 41.4% of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘 What we're reading: As the 2021 Summer Olympics approach, all eyes are on host country Japan as it battles rising COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent months.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

New cases drop to levels last seen before pandemic declaration

New coronavirus cases nationwide are down to about 15,000 per day on average, while deaths have plummeted to around 430 a day – levels not seen since the World Health Organization made the pandemic declaration on March 11, 2020. New England, where more than 60% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, has seen some of the sharpest declines in hospitalizations, deaths and community spread.

“The past year and a half has been like going through a tornado or something terrible,” Kerry LaBarbera, an ER nurse from Boston Medical Center said. “You’re holding on for dear life, and then you get past it and it’s like, ‘What just happened?’”

Colorado health officials said hospitalization records show vaccines are preventing severe disease in the state, even as the pandemic continues to rage among unvaccinated individuals.

“We’ve taken a deep look at this," Dr. JP Valin, chief clinical officer at SCL Health, told Colorado Public Radio. “Ninety-five percent of the patients who have been hospitalized since February are unvaccinated,"

California plans grand reopening, but emergency will remain

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he plans to maintain California's emergency declaration, but the state's long-awaited reopening is still planned for June 15. Newsom cites the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, as well as discrepancies in vaccination rates, as justification for keeping the state of emergency declaration in place.

"This disease has not been extinguished. It's not vanished; it's not taking the summer months off," Newsom said.

Newsom originally issued the state of emergency in March 2020, a power granted to him by the California Emergency Services Act. The crisis-intervention laws have also allowed Newsom to issue at least 58 executive orders, altering or suspending existing laws.

GOP aims to revive Fauci attacks after email trove released

With the release of a trove of Dr. Anthony Fauci's emails last week, political attacks on the nation’s top government infectious-diseases expert have gone into overdrive. On conservative news channels, President Joe Biden’s pandemic adviser has been baselessly pilloried as a liar who misled the American people about the origins of COVID-19 to protect the Chinese government. There's no evidence of wrongdoing, but Republican calls for his resignation have grown louder, as have demands for new investigations into the origins of the virus.

The doctor’s newly released emails, which span the early days of the pandemic and were obtained by BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post, show no evidence of any kind of coverup about the origin of the virus. Indeed, many of the discussions reflect the science at the time. But many Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have seized on the emails as proof of a conspiracy to obscure the source of the virus.

“Given what we know now, I don’t know how anyone can have confidence that he should remain in a position of public trust and authority,” said Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a potential presidential hopeful who is calling for Fauci’s resignation and a full congressional inquiry.

New York to eliminate indoor mask rule for schools, camp

New York plans to eliminate its indoor mask rule Monday for schools and camps regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for K-12 schools recommends requiring "consistent and correct use of well-fitting face masks with proper filtration by all students, teachers, and staff."

But for youth camps, the CDC "strongly encourages mask use indoors for people who are not fully vaccinated" and says "people do not need to wear masks" outdoors, regardless of vaccination status.

In a letter to the head of the CDC, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner, said the state would encourage indoor mask use by unvaccinated students, campers and staff. But for consistency, the state would not require indoor masks in either schools or camps.

Virtual visits may be here to stay, post-COVID-19

As the COVID-19 crisis wanes and life approaches normal across the U.S., health industry leaders and patient advocates are pushing Congress and the Biden administration to preserve the pandemic-fueled expansion of telehealth that has transformed how millions of Americans see the doctor. The broad effort reaches across the nation’s diverse health care system, bringing together consumer groups with health insurers, state Medicaid officials, physician organizations and telehealth vendors.

And it represents an emerging consensus that many services that once required an office visit can be provided easily and safely – and often more effectively – through a video chat, a phone call or even an email.

“We’ve seen that telehealth is an extraordinary tool,” said David Holmberg, chief executive of Pittsburgh-based Highmark, a multistate insurer that also operates a major medical system. “It’s convenient for the patient, and it’s convenient for the doctor. … Now we need to make it sustainable and enduring.”

Last fall, a coalition of patient groups – including the American Heart Association, the Arthritis Foundation, Susan G. Komen and the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society – hailed the expansion of telehealth, noting the technology “can and should be used to increase patient access to care.”

Noam N. Levey, Kaiser Health News

The Associated Press contributed to this column.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New COVID cases drop dramatically; summer school will be packed

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