School Report Card: CDC suggests in-person school is OK with proper health protocols; Okla. schools fine students who show up maskless

Korin Miller
·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.

The CDC says schools can have in-person learning with ‘limited spread’ of COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released new research that it says suggests in-person learning is relatively safe during the pandemic.

The study, which was published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, analyzed data from 17 schools in rural Wisconsin between Aug. 31 and Nov. 29, 2020. Eight were elementary schools, with 1,529 students attending in-person, and nine were grades seven through 12, with 3,347 students attending in-person schooling.

The schools reported that most students wore masks and, based on the data the CDC gathered, COVID-19 cases among students and staff were lower than those in the county overall. More than 191 COVID-19 cases were identified in students and staff, and only seven — all among students — were linked to in-school spread.

The schools also followed several “mitigation measures,” per the CDC, including funding for the districts to give students three to five masks; requiring masks indoors and when within 6 feet of others outdoors; attempting to seat children near the same person within their cohort at lunch and in class; and asking siblings to quarantine at home as well when a student contracts COVID-19. Classes included anywhere from 11 to 20 students.

“With masking requirements and student cohorting, transmission risk within schools appeared low, suggesting that schools might be able to safely open with appropriate mitigation efforts in place,” the researchers concluded.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that the findings make sense. “The science is on the side of opening schools with safety measures,” he says. “It should be the default — school should be the last thing to close.”

But Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life that the risk of spread in schools “is not zero.”

“Schools are safer with the right precautions, but how does one define ‘safe?’” he asks.

As of now, President Biden plans to reopen schools for in-person learning by late spring.

Georgia school officials are under fire for not wearing masks as requested during a moment of silence for a teacher who died of COVID-19

An elementary school guidance counselor is speaking out after several members of Georgia’s Cobb County Board of Education refused to wear masks to honor a teacher who died of COVID-19.

Jennifer Susko spoke during a public comment session during the school board meeting on Jan. 21 and requested that board members and the school superintendent honor Hendricks Elementary School art teacher Patrick Key by putting on face masks and observing a moment of silence. The act, she said, would be “a tribute to this teacher, who did everything you asked of him — even teaching through a pandemic.”

“As teachers and staff are being asked to do more than ever, we would appreciate that more be done to remember and honor Patrick tonight,” Susko said in the meeting. During the moment of silence, two board members and the superintendent did not put on masks.

“I’d like the record to reflect that some of you did not wear a mask, the final request of a Cobb teacher who died. Your actions in these two minutes have spoken louder than words,” Susko said. “We see where your priorities are. Please know that many of us reject your false gratitude for staff since we seem disposable to many of you.”

Key’s obituary specifically asked people to wear masks to protect against the spread against COVID-19. “Patrick felt passionate about wearing masks during the pandemic,” the obituary said. “In lieu of flowers, please buy and wear a mask to protect others and yourself in honor of him.”

Susko tells Yahoo Life that Key’s family was “deeply hurt that they wouldn’t choose to engage in the gesture — even briefly.”

“His family asked for masks in lieu of flowers since it was so important to him,” she said. “Community members, parents and other stakeholders are still very upset and outraged by the lack of willingness of the superintendent and board members to honor the teacher who died doing what they asked of him.”

A Cobb County School District spokesperson tells Yahoo Life that the school board and district’s “hearts go out to” the district staffers who recently died of COVID-19. “Our entire team, including our board, is following the district mask policy ... which asks all staff or students to wear a mask at all times when social distancing is not possible,” the spokesperson says. “In the case of our board meetings, the room has been intentionally spaced to allow for social distancing."

New York state will permit ‘high risk’ high school winter sports

State officials in New York are opening up “high risk” high school winter sports to students, starting on Feb. 1. The announcement was made in an update to the state’s “Interim Guidance for Sports and Recreation During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.”

A schoolyard is closed outside a public school in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on November 19, 2020. - US coronavirus deaths passed a quarter of a million people on November 18 as New York announced it would close schools to battle a rise in infections. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A schoolyard is closed outside a public school in Brooklyn. (Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

“Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher risk sports and recreation activities may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training,” the guidelines state. “Further, [they] may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities (i.e., county health departments).”

The guidance lists the following as high-risk sports:

  • Football

  • Wrestling

  • Ice hockey

  • Rugby

  • Basketball

  • Contact lacrosse

  • Volleyball

  • Martial arts

  • Competitive cheer and group dance

  • Other sports and recreation activities where social distancing is difficult and equipment is shared

COVID-19 case counts remain high in the state, with New York reporting 13,398 cases on Jan. 27. Spokespeople from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and the New York State Department of Health did not respond to Yahoo Life’s requests for comment.

Kleinman expects “there will be some transmission” after these sports resume. “One of the problems with high school sports is the potential ratio of passion to reason in how decisions are made,” he says. “Reason needs to predominate — not passion.” Kleinman says schools “need to be very careful to minimize the opportunities for bad things to happen.”

Oklahoma schools are charging students who go to school without a mask

Students at Rector Johnson Middle School and Broken Bow High School in Broken Bow, Okla., will face a $1 fine if they forget to bring a mask to school.

The schools shared a message on Facebook Monday, informing parents of the fine if their students go to school without a mask.

“Our students are all aware there are several classrooms they attend daily that masks are required,” the post on the Rector Johnson Middle School Facebook page reads. “This decision to continue to protect our most vulnerable was supported and approved by our school board several months ago. We have been very accommodating and patient with students as they continue to arrive to school without a mask. We have issued [reusable] masks (and lanyards to keep up with them) countless times to our students.”

But, the post says, issuing all those masks has “depleted our resources.” Hence, the new policy. If students don’t have $1 available to buy a new mask, “they will be asked to call a parent/guardian to bring them a mask or bring them $1 to purchase one,” the post says. “We respectfully ask you to please remind your children each morning to bring their masks. Thanks for your help.”

The message on the Broken Bow Public Schools Facebook page was similar.

Response to the post hasn’t been positive. “Absolutely disgusting you should be ashamed of yourselves!!!! So now if a family is poor they are not entitled to safety AT SCHOOL or and education?!!!! You are charging for a mask!!!!” one wrote. “What is wrong with the people in charge? Can't give a kid a mask? The board should be impeached!!!” another said. “The tax payers already paid for these mask when you used school funds to order them. On top of that a 50 pack of mask cost 10 dollars. So what is the school doing with the 40 dollars profit you made selling merchandise?” one commented.

Broken Bow Public Schools did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. The district is located in rural McCurtain County, Okla., which reported 30 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, according to the New York Times. On Thursday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,320 new COVID-19 cases statewide.

Kleinman calls the policy “anti-public health,” saying that “masks need to be provided to people, whether they’re in school or not.” Charging for masks in schools “is a problem because of issues of equity,” he adds.

University of Michigan asks students to stay home until Feb. 7 as cases of B.1.1.7 increase

The Washtenaw County (Mich.) Health Department is asking all students at the University of Michigan who are living on or near the Ann Arbor campus to stay in their homes through Feb. 7.

“Students are being asked to remain at their campus-area addresses and to not gather with others outside of their household members,” a joint press release from the school and health department says. “Students are permitted to leave their residence only to participate in limited activities, including in-person classes, work or research that cannot be completed remotely, obtaining food and medical care and other approved activities.”

The recommendation is “designed to further limit in-person gatherings and slow the increasing spread of cases of COVID-19 in the community, including the more easily transmitted B.1.1.7 variant,” the release says. Since the start of the school’s winter term on Jan. 19, 175 students have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including 14 who had the B.1.1.7 variant.

“More stringent actions may be necessary if this outbreak continues to grow and additional variant clusters are identified,” the release says.

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that it’s “definitely a concern” that B.1.1.7 is circulating on the University of Michigan campus “because of its higher rate of transmission.” He says “students need to be extra careful, especially with social distancing.”

Limiting activities when COVID-19 cases are rising is a known way to help prevent the spread of the virus, Kleinman says. But, he adds, it’s difficult to enforce on a college campus. “When you have young people who are in proximity to one another, it’s very hard to keep them from congregating with one another,” he points out.

A University of Michigan spokesperson referred Yahoo Life to the press release.

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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