Masks And More: Persistent COVID Panic Sets Up Another Fraught School Year

Masks And More: Persistent COVID Panic Sets Up Another Fraught School Year

Children across the country are returning to in-person learning, but another round of changing rules equates to anything but a strong start for students.
Ashley Bateman
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Children across the country are returning to in-person learning this fall, but widely variable opening strategies, COVID testing, and mask mandates equate to anything but a unified return for students. While even leftist publications like New York Magazine now admit “The Kids Were Safe from COVID The Whole Time,” noting car crashes, pneumonia, and drowning kill more kids every year than COVID, millions of Americans and their schools remain locked into the same unnecessary COVID responses other Western countries long ago abandoned as lacking evidence and sense.

About 11 percent of U.S. K-12 students had begun the 2021-2022 school year by August 6, according to the school opening tracker on the data aggregation site Burbio. More than 80 percent of K-12 students started back in Arizona, Mississippi, Hawaii, and Georgia in that first week of August, as well as about half of students in Tennessee and just over 30 percent in Indiana, New Mexico, and Alabama.

By August 13, about a quarter of U.S. students had returned to school. At that point, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Nevada had more than 50 percent of students back to school in some form, joined by about 40 percent in Texas.

“Currently, every school district is planning on opening traditionally while last year roughly 62 percent of the U.S. K-12 school population started virtually,” said Burbio founder Dennis Roche in an interview. “The testing plans seem set, as do quarantine plans. Mask mandates are shifting as state legislation changes and districts use ‘community spread’ as a guiding factor.”

To Mask or Not to Mask

Burbio’s tracker follows school masking policies across the country. It shows state, district, and federal guidelines for child and teacher masking are changing frequently, with or without driving data. The Centers for Disease Control’s recent decision to reinforce child masking had an immediate ripple effect increasing school mask mandates, especially in urban locations.

“Urban areas everywhere are requiring masks, even in many states where they are banned such as Texas and Florida,” Roche said. New Orleans, Anchorage, and Boise are just three examples the Burbio tracker lists.

“Last year all but a handful of districts mandated masks and there was minimal testing on site,” Roche said. “This year the mask situation is still playing itself out.”

In the first week of August, Louisiana returned to mandating masks for students in grades K-12. Illinois issued a similar statewide mandate for public and private schools. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia flipped from a more flexible policy he issued in late July to requiring students and teachers to mask regardless of their vaccine status. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy also flipped on masks right as school started across his state.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order July 30 enforcing parents’ “right to choose” whether their children are masked at school, effectively banning school-issued mask mandates. The order cited studies indicating the detriment of masking young children and lack of evidence supporting fears of any large-scale youth spread of COVID-19.

Some Florida districts are requesting approval to require what they say is temporary masking, while the large Broward and Alachua counties face financial penalties for ignoring DeSantis’s order and continuing to demand masks.

In New York, schools have been placed in the driver’s seat. The state’s health commissioner issued a brief statement on Aug. 5 directing schools to open in-person and follow CDC guidance.

Burdensome Testing, Quarantining

“The mechanics of testing and quarantine rules are going to have a big impact this coming fall,” Roche said in his August brief. “The wide variation of testing and mitigation strategies across the country will make their ability to successfully do so a difficult situation to assess for the first few weeks of classes.” “Among the handful of disruptions and data points” he noted were schools closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks, bus driver staff shortages, and last-minute opening changes.

In Texas, contact tracing by local districts is not required, but the state’s education association recommends that a school system notify parents of students “who are determined to be close contacts of an individual with COVID-19,” and those families may choose whether to have their child quarantine.

Several states are requiring weekly COVID testing and complicated strategies for exposed students to return to the classroom. Parents in Utah, for example, have the right to choose whether to mask their children, but schools can still make it difficult for children to attend if following the state’s recent quarantine and testing guidelines.

According to the Utah Department of Health guidelines, if a student is exposed to COVID-19 at school, the department recommends only continuing to attend school if the exposed student and positive student were both masked or the exposed student had recently had COVID-19 or had been wearing an N-95 or KN-95 mask.

Burbio provided a summary of Davis School District, Utah, which “will follow ‘test-to-stay’ protocols, holding a coronavirus testing event if 2 percent of students and staff for a school of more than 1,500 people, or 30 students and staff for a school of 1,500 or less, test positive for the disease.”

Illinois is also encouraging detailed “test to stay” options singling out unvaccinated individuals for schools that want an alternative to quarantining. Students in close contact with COVID-19 positive peers can be tested on days 1, 3, 5, and 7 of continuing to attend school. Weekly testing on unvaccinated students and staff is encouraged, with priority for schools who adhere.

In Marion, Arkansas, the first days of the school year have already been riddled with disruptions as more than 900 students were placed in quarantine.

Virtual School Quickly Rushed Out

Burbio has also tracked states with virtual learning options. Districts are adding virtual academies, often very close to their overall school start date, Roche said.

In response to “rapidly changing conditions related to Covid 19,” one Texas district added a temporary K-6 virtual academy. Frisco, Texas will run the option for the first nine weeks of school and then evaluate whether to extend it. Denton, Texas’s K-8 virtual academy has a reported 130-student waitlist.

In New York, several districts say a lack of state guidance is pushing them to open in-person while making virtual backup plans. In a July 29 letter, the Guilderland School District superintendent said the schools were “awaiting guidance from the New York State Department of Health and the Albany County Department of Health regarding protocols for mask wearing, social distancing in classrooms, cafeterias and on school buses.”

Cleveland Hill voiced similar concerns to parents in a letter on July 30 stating that “updated guidance on reopening schools in September has still not yet been provided to us. In absence of that guidance, we are doing what we can to prepare for some of the possible requirements that may be included in it.”

In Alabama, Birmingham recently added a 3-12 grade virtual academy, and in Mobile, virtual learning was expanded to K-6. In Iowa, the Ankeny School Board recently announced virtual classes available to students who qualify.

Ashley Bateman is a policy writer for The Heartland Institute and blogger for Ascension Press.
Photo Marc A. Hermann / MTA

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