School Report Card: A COVID-free hotel for college students draws Fyre Fest comparisons, and schools roll out rapid testing

Korin Miller
A man helps his son get a coronavirus test. Certain schools have begun pilot programs to offer rapid tests to students. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A man helps his son get a coronavirus test. Certain schools have begun pilot programs to offer rapid tests to students. (Photo by David L. Ryan/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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.

A superintendent in Framingham, Mass., says there is evidence of in-school spread

For months, public health officials have said that schools are not a significant source of COVID-19 spread — but a school superintendent in Framingham, Mass., says otherwise. Robert Tremblay of Framingham Public Schools said in a school committee meeting this week that he’s concerned about what he’s seeing.

"What is different from a week ago is we’re starting to see in-school transmission," he said Wednesday in a virtual meeting that’s been posted to the school district’s Facebook page. “Whatever the CDC might be saying or whatever the governor or the commissioner of education might be saying, that it’s safe to come back to school and schools are not the nexus of where spread is happening … we have evidence to the contrary in our community.”

Tremblay, who said he’s “alarmed” by what he’s seeing, later said that Framingham “by its own numbers and by evidence of what we’re seeing, is different. It’s different and we need to pay attention to that.” Tremblay also said he’s known of cases of parents sending their children to school, knowing that they had COVID-19 symptoms.

Many people applauded Tremblay’s candidness in the comments. “No holding back tonight. LOVING IT. Thank you to everyone on the school committee and to Dr. Tremblay for bringing the REALNESS tonight,” one person wrote. “Thank you for speaking with such passion about the gravity of this situation, Dr. Tremblay. We are so appreciative of your honesty tonight,” another said.

Tremblay did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Worth noting: Health officials in New Jersey say that there have been 70 school outbreaks involving 285 people since the state’s schools opened in August. The New Jersey Department of Health has even added a special dashboard on its website to help track these cases.

That contradicts recent statements by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We're not seeing intra-school transmission,” he said during an interview with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “I just think it’s healthy for these kids to be in school. That said, they’ve got to do it safely and they’ve got to do it responsibly.”

Redfield said that “no one really knew for certain” whether it was safe for children to be in school during the summer, “but now the data clearly shows us that you can operate these schools in face-to-face learning in a safe and responsible way.”

Some public schools will start testing children and staff

Public schools in the District of Columbia, North Carolina and some parts of Tennessee have developed programs to allow students and staff access to free COVID-19 testing at school.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced new testing protocols for public schools on Wednesday. The program will include in-school testing for students and mailed testing kits for staff. The pilot program, which will start next week, is free for students and staff.

Under the program, DC Health will manage on-site testing of students, who may receive a PCR nasal-swab test every 10 days with a testing consent form signed by the student’s parent or guardian. Staff will receive a self-administered testing kit in the mail once a week, but are not required to complete it.

Bowser’s office did not return Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

In North Carolina, some public schools will offer free rapid antigen COVID-19 testing to students and staff, with the first shipment of tests expected no later than Dec. 14. The tests come courtesy of the federal government, which will grant the state 3.1 million rapid tests, Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, tells Yahoo Life. “Conducting a pilot gives the state an opportunity to learn from the experience of a smaller group of sites testing K-12 students and staff prior to expanding testing more widely to support public schools,” she says.

“Keeping schools open so our children can learn in person is critical for their success and development, and has been a priority for NCDHHS since the beginning of the pandemic,” Connor says. “Providing COVID-19 testing to public school students and staff will allow for faster identification of positive COVID-19 cases, which allows schools and local health departments to respond more quickly to implement control measures, such as helping people isolate or quarantine, providing other services if needed, identifying close contacts and other efforts.”

And in Hamilton County, Tenn., school nurses will be able to administer rapid COVID-19 tests on-site as of Friday, with results expected in 20 minutes. School nurses will also be able to give PCR tests, although results will take longer to get back. The testing will happen in waves, with the first focusing on staff with symptoms in the district’s middle schools, per a Hamilton County Schools press release. From there, it will expand to all staff. The third stage will include symptomatic students, and the fourth will open up testing to asymptomatic staff.

Some colleges are getting rid of snow days and other weather-driven days off

Snow days can provide a fun break for students, but several colleges are doing away with them.

The University of Missouri recently announced that the school will not close during “severe inclement weather” in the future. Instead, it will “shift to remote working and learning when needed.”

“Even if campus is not open, classes and work will continue, ensuring that students can make academic progress and productivity is maintained,” school officials said in an alert posted online.

Christian Basi, director of media relations for the University of Missouri, tells Yahoo Life that “one of the bright spots” of the pandemic is that it “demonstrated to us that we can continue to deliver a quality education remotely and to do so effectively.” The school sees a “day or two at most” a year where the weather is so bad that campus would be shut down. “The catch is that if we shut the campus down, there are typically millions of dollars in cost and lost productivity, as well as halting a potential academic learning opportunity,” he says. “But if we’re able to do that virtually where all of our students and the vast majority of our employees can work remotely and safely from their homes, it’s better for university and students, and continues to keep people on track.”

Basi says this is a “permanent policy change” for the school.

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has made a similar change. Recently, Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president of the school, and Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, told staff and students in an email sent to Yahoo Life that poor weather won’t stop online learning. “In the event that inclement weather should cause Cornell to change operating status such that classes are impacted, any online instruction planned to take place is expected to occur,” the email says. There are exceptions, such as if an instructor is required to be on campus, the instructor has poor internet connectivity, or if moving forward with online instruction will cause “disruptive ‘catch-up’ issues” for students who are learning in person.

A new organization promises a safe campus resort for remote college students

A startup organization called the U Experience is attempting to re-create the college experience on a safe, COVID-free campus for remote learners. The startup is “bringing together 150 college students from across the globe for the semester of a lifetime,” according to its website.

“This fall, when universities announced they were moving college online but leaving their tuition bills unchanged, we recognized that colleges had lost sight of what students are paying for,” the organization says online. “Colleges might not believe the experience is worth anything, but we don’t think students agree, so we’re giving them another option.”

The organization has secured the Tanglewood Resort in Pottsboro, Texas, where students will live from January through April 2021, U Experience CEO and co-founder Lane Russell tells Yahoo Life. (Russell says his company started reaching out to hotels and resorts after the idea came to fruition and had “multiple bids” within a week.)

U Experience plans to keep COVID-19 away by having students tested when they arrive, quarantining them and then testing them again “to make sure there’s no COVID on campus,” Russell says. Students will be asked to stay on campus until the semester is up. There will be continuous testing on campus, and students will have limited interaction with the staff to try to keep possible sources of infection low. “It will be similar to the NBA bubble,” Russell says.

U Experience isn’t cheap: It costs $8,700 for housing, and meal plans start at $1,200. There are also housing upgrades available, such as villa suites and rooms with a Jacuzzi, but “all members will have a fully furnished bedroom,” Russell says. “It’s a fully operational hotel,” he adds.

The resort is “right on a lake — there are opportunities for water sports,” Russell says. “Students are really getting community,” he continues. “We like to compare it to study abroad.”

Reception has been mixed online. “This is going to be FyreFest 2.0 💀,” one person wrote in the comments of an Instagram post featuring “student profiles” of several future U Experience attendees. “I’m so excited to see the s***show that comes out of this,” another said.

But Russell says the criticism is from people who don’t understand what the U Experience will be and the planning that has gone into it. “People who compare us to the Fyre Festival haven’t looked at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” he says. “Fyre organizers had this massive campaign and said, ‘We’ll figure out logistics later.’ We’ve already pulled this off, and we have applicants excited about this.”

Russell says U Experience has received more than 1,500 applications, and that it plans to accept people “on a rolling basis.”

“We’re really trying to create the perfect class,” he says. “The ideal student is smart, sociable and creative. A leader. We want people who are comfortable in the spotlight.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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