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School Report Card: Biden wants schools to reopen in 100 days; petition urges Vermont to vaccinate teachers, school staff

Korin Miller
·14 min read
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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.

President Biden is aiming to reopen schools to in-person learning within 100 days. Biden made the announcement as part of the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, which was released on Thursday. The document spells out several strategies for tackling the pandemic and returning to normalcy, including a section devoted to education.

“The United States is committed to ensuring that students and educators are able to resume safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible, with the goal of getting a majority of K-8 schools safely open in 100 days,” the document reads.

Biden also issued an executive order called Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers that directs a national strategy for safely reopening schools. (To date, it has largely been a state-led operation.) Under the order, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services must provide guidance on safe reopening and operating, and have to develop a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse to “share lessons learned and best practices from across the country.”

Biden’s order extends federal support to states for “full reimbursement of eligible costs” needed for a “safe school reopening” through the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund. He is also asking Congress to provide at least $130 billion in dedicated funding to schools, $350 billion in flexible state and local relief funds that will help districts avoid layoffs and close budget gaps, and additional resources so that schools can safely reopen, including funds to implement screening tests.

The Biden administration also plans to release a handbook to help schools and local leaders implement the precautions and strategies needed for safe reopening. The White House says it will work with states and local school districts to support screening in schools, including working with states to ensure an adequate supply of test kits.

Reactions on social media are mixed:

But doctors agree that this is a step in the right direction. “I’ve been advocating for schools to reopen prior to this,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s a nice development that the president is prioritizing reopening.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that reopening schools in 100 days is “aspirational,” adding, “I think it’s a great idea.”

However, experts say many precautions need to be taken first. “It’s a huge job,” Schaffner notes, adding that trying to vaccinate all adults associated with schools is key. “If we could vaccinate all adults associated with schools, we could reduce the anxiety in our country tremendously and get kids back in school,” he says.

Schools also “have to be modified in a way that allows for physical distancing and limits the spread,” Adalja says. That may mean getting creative with learning spaces, like taking over empty buildings in the community for learning or having outdoor class when the weather permits, he says. “Schools can reclaim empty space, just like hospitals have to do. They can use resources from the federal government to rent space.”

Adalja acknowledges that it’s not possible to reopen schools to in-person learning and have students and staff be 100 percent safe from the virus. Schaffner agrees: “Nothing is perfect. We can’t wave a magic wand. But children are less affected by the virus and they don’t seem to be major transmitters. Adults are transmitting this virus mostly.”

“This needs to be a priority in this country,” Adalja says. “It’s odd that schools have stayed open in other countries but, in the U.S., casinos have stayed open while schools have stayed closed.”

School district in Arkansas approves COVID-19 leave for teachers

Arkansas’s Siloam Springs School District board members have approved COVID-19 leave for employees. Staff will be granted 10 days of paid COVID-19 leave if they become sick or have to quarantine because of the virus.

Teachers were granted 10 days of COVID-19 leave in the fall under federal legislation, but the federal money was halted on Dec. 31, superintendent Jody Wiggins tells Yahoo Life.

Employees who meet the criteria will not have to use their sick time or personal time until the 10 days of COVID-19 leave is used up. “We have had several teachers who would have had to be docked pay for missing too many days if we had not had COVID leave available in the fall,” Wiggins says. “We anticipate we will have as many, if not more, COVID-related absences this spring.”

Arkansas is currently seeing a surge in COVID-19 infections, with 3,106 new cases reported Thursday.

A policy like this is “very forward-thinking,” Dr. Juan Salazar, physician in chief and executive vice president of academic affairs at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “It could potentially help limit the spread of COVID-19 from teachers and staff to students.”

It also helps alleviate concerns about using up vacation time or losing pay for COVID-related sick days, Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, survey/data core director at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “When people’s financial interests go against public health interests, that’s a bad thing,” he says.

Wiggins says the leave policy has been “very well received and much appreciated by staff.”

“We hope this relieves some of the stress on our staff that is associated with the pandemic,” he says. “We also hope this encourages staff to go and get tested when they are exhibiting symptoms without the fear of possibly losing salary if they have to stay at home because of a positive test. Our ultimate goal is to do everything we can as a district to ensure that we maintain face-to-face instruction because we believe that is the best option for students and for learning.”

Some high schools are live-streaming athletic events

Sports have continued at many high schools across the country, but the number of spectators has been limited due to the pandemic. That’s why several have come up with a tech-savvy solution: live-streaming events.

At the Twinsburg (Ohio) City School District, games are live-streamed through the district’s three YouTube channels. “We started to have the conversation about this when COVID really ramped up last spring, projecting that we were probably going to be in this situation for a while,” Brian Fantone, athletic director of Twinsburg Schools, tells Yahoo Life. Twinsburg High School has an interactive media class taught by Casey Kirtley, and it seemed like a natural fit to use its resources to live-stream games, he says.

“We were very fortunate that we had a lot of capability and personnel — meaning Casey and his students — to pull this off,” Fantone says.

Fantone shares athletic schedules with Kirtley and his class; they set up cameras in the right areas and live-stream from the events. “One hundred percent of the credit goes to Mr. Kirtley and his students,” Fantone says.

The reception from families has been “great,” Fantone adds. He has also heard that family members from out of state who normally wouldn’t be able to see students play have been able to tune in. “It’s just become a bright spot with everything that’s happened,” he says. The school is even considering continuing with live-streamed games when life returns to normal. “There’s something to be said for continuing the process of live-streaming athletic events, just because of the positives that have come out of it,” he says.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day School is also live-streaming athletic events. Abe Wehmiller, the school’s director of athletics, tells Yahoo Life that the school started live-streaming some home volleyball and basketball games in the fall of 2019 “as a way to expand our following beyond our immediate student and parent community.” But, this past fall, the school “ramped up our efforts considerably … as a way to provide continued viewing opportunities even as we’ve had to limit in-person attendance in compliance with COVID-related health and safety protocols,” he says.

Charlotte Country Day School broadcasts most of its athletic events through the NFHS Network and purchased a schoolwide license so viewers don’t have to pay a fee.

It hasn’t been a seamless process, though. “We learned a lot this fall about what is required to successfully produce regular broadcasts — everything from equipment to personnel to network infrastructure,” Wehmiller says. “There were a lot of bumps in the road, but we’re much better at it now than we were when we started in September.”

More than 4,500 people sign a petition to prioritize COVID-19 vaccination for Vermont teachers and school staff

A petition to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for teachers and school staff in Vermont has garnered more than 4,500 signatures and counting. The petition, which was started by kindergarten teacher Samantha Brehm, asks that teachers be included in the state’s phase one rollout for COVID-19 vaccination.

“There is insufficient data to justify the exclusion of teachers and school staff from being prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccination,” the petition reads. “We call on Governor [Phil] Scott to follow the CDC and federal guidelines to ensure the inclusion of teachers and school staff in the next phase of vaccinations after group 1A.”

As of now, health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities can be vaccinated in the state. Starting Jan. 25, people who are 75 or older will be able to be vaccinated.

Brehm tells Yahoo Life that school surveillance data of COVID-19 cases among teachers and staff is “incomplete” given that it only includes positive results from those who have opted into testing or are asymptomatic. “Surveillance testing excludes teachers who fail the daily health screening or self-report more than one symptom,” her petition reads.

“My hope is that the state of Vermont acknowledges that the school surveillance data is incomplete,” she says. Brehm says she sent her petition to Scott and received an “automated response” about the state’s vaccination schedule in response.

A sign has been modified to read "I will be grateful for Covid ending" amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brattleboro, Vermont, U.S., April 19, 2020.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A sign has been modified to read "I will be grateful for Covid ending" in Brattleboro, Vt. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director, defended the state’s vaccination plan. “Our vaccination strategy is based on data and science and focused on preserving lives,” she tells Yahoo Life. “While we continue to have an unpredictable and very limited supply, our phase two distribution plan prioritizes those at greatest risk of death and severe illness with an age banding approach.” The state eventually will move down by five-year increments to those who are 65 years old. After that, people with certain chronic conditions will be included. “Teachers and school staff who meet these criteria would of course be eligible for vaccination during these early distribution phases,” Kelley says.

“The bottom line is that age is the No. 1 indicator of risk for death and severe illness. In Vermont, 93 percent of our COVID-19 deaths are 65 years old or older,” Kelley explains. “By prioritizing based on that risk, we are meeting our No. 1 goal in this emergency: to save lives. Expanding to a broader population based on jobs and sectors would distract us from this mission, and given the limited supply, would make little impact on stopping the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable. This is the thinking behind our strategy.”

Kelley says the state uses the surveillance testing “to monitor our broader conditions for the virus in our communities not to justify an approach to vaccination.”

But Brehm maintains that teachers need to be prioritized. “Vermont children deserve to be in school, Vermont parents expect children to be in school and Vermont is doing everything to make that happen by April 2021, except vaccinating teachers and school staff,” she says. “Teachers and school staff matter.”

A record number of teachers are retiring in Florida’s Broward County amid concerns about the lack of social distancing in classrooms

Hundreds of teachers in Florida’s Broward County are planning to retire over concerns about safety in their schools. Several parents also spoke out in a press conference earlier this week about fears that local schools aren’t spacing out students enough in class.

One of those parents, John Moreno-Escobar, said that he received a message from his son’s elementary school that said some classes may only be able to maintain a distance of 3 feet between students, half the distance currently recommended by the CDC. “I’m very concerned about the health of students, parents and teachers,” he said at the press conference. “As more students get pushed to go back, we’re going to see this more.”

Sawgrass Elementary School, the Sunrise, Fla., school that Moreno-Escobar’s son attends, did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

Salazar says it’s “risky” to disregard CDC guidelines on spacing in schools. “Many of the kids will be, for the most part, asymptomatic,” he says. “Even if they’re wearing a mask, bringing back a lot of kids in classrooms in crowded conditions — those kids are going to get infected, and they’re going to bring it home to their parents and grandparents, who can get really sick.”

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, tells Yahoo Life that the union expects all schools to “follow protocol and all CDC guidelines” for social distancing. “It can happen if they pay close attention to the capacity of the students entering in brick and mortar,” she says. “The schools need to make a conscious effort to not ignore the CDC guidelines for social distancing.”

This year, 340 teachers are retiring in the school district — a sharp increase from 108 last year.

Fusco says she doesn’t blame teachers who choose retirement. “The COVID cases have risen and the deaths have risen,” she says. “The choice to end their career with retirement instead of possible exposure to COVID and possibly die was not easy, but they needed to make the choice to retire to make sure they stay safe and alive.”

For those who aren’t retiring, Fusco says, they’re “very concerned the CDC guidelines will not be able to continue” as the district plans to bring more students back to in-person learning.

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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