A social distancing reminder is posted on a hallway floor of Nebinger Elementary School, March 19, 2021, in Philadelphia.(MATT ROURKE/AP)
The pace of school closures due to coronavirus outbreaks slowed significantly over the last week – the latest bright spot for the Biden administration, which is all-hands-on-deck trying to help school leaders remain open now the vast majority of the country’s public education system is up and running.[
According to Burbio, an organization that’s been tracking school responses to COVID-19, a total of 2,238 schools that began that school year in-person have temporarily closed or pivoted to virtual or hybrid learning – a list that grew by only 38 schools over the last week. The closures – the fewest number recorded since the school year got underway in mid-August – occurred across 561 districts in 45 states.
The data comes on the heels of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifying before Congress last week to deliver the good news that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 96% of schools in the country’s public education system are fully open for in-person learning.
“While we must stay vigilant, I’m proud to say that, despite an increase in a variant of COVID-19 about a month before school started, America is back to school,” Cardona said.
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And for a White House that’s been hyper-focused on driving up vaccination rates among educators, school staff and students as a way to keep schools open, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 students was also welcome news.
The vaccination requirement – the first statewide mandate for public and private schools in the country – would take effect once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine, perhaps as soon as January 2022 for children 12 and up.
Hardly any school districts outside of California have instituted a vaccine mandate for all eligible students, but the list of school districts requiring vaccinations for eligible students who play sports or other in-person extracurricular activities continues to grow. Some of the biggest school districts to do so include New York City, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Fairfax Country in Virginia.
The number of school districts adopting vaccination requirements for school staff continues to increase as well: According to an updated analysis by the Center for Reinventing Public Education of 100 of the country’s largest and most high-profile schools – including the 30 biggest in the country – about 40 require staff vaccinations. Of those, 14 do not offer the option of testing as an alternative to vaccination.[
Among those 14 is New York City, the country’s largest school district, whose vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff went into effect Monday after overcoming a flurry of legal challenges last week.
Vaccination rates among principals, teachers and school staff were already high, but the requirement prompted roughly 18,000 individuals who had not yet been vaccinated to get a shot since Sept. 24, the city’s Department of Education reported. As it stands, 98% of principals, 93% of educators and 90% of other school staff, including cafeteria workers, janitors and school bus drivers, have been fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, education officials in Massachusetts announced a new policy: Middle and high schools that have 80% of school staff and students vaccinated may be eligible to opt out of the state’s K-12 mask mandate.
Of course, challenges remain.
And the messages of success the secretaries delivered to members of Congress were undercut by ongoing – and in some cases mounting – concerns shared by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about lack of available COVID-19 tests, students’ mental health and the months of learning loss that accumulated during remote instruction, teacher and staff shortages, ensuring students with disabilities are getting access to the type of education they’re owed under federal law, and of course, the ongoing politicization of mask and vaccine mandates.
Availability of testing was the top concern for both Democrats and Republicans.
In March, HHS announced it was making $10 billion available for K-12 schools for testing. But the supply diminished following increased demand over the summer months as the delta variant took hold.[
“I am troubled by the continuing challenge that schools don’t have testing,” Sen. Patty Murray, Washington state Democrat and chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told the secretaries.
According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education’s analysis, only 37 of the 100 districts require testing for staff and just 14 mandate it for students.
“It seems you have failed to communicate to them about how to access these dollars,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee. “People still cannot access rapid tests when stores are out of stock and people go back to waiting days for test results.”
Becerra said that demand for testing has increased in some places 300% to 650%, leading to short periods of time in which it’s difficult for people to find tests. But the country itself, he said, has sufficient supply to meet the current demand.
Demand for the tests is expected to continue increasing in the near future as school districts increasingly adopt test-to-stay policies that allow students who have been exposed to COVID-19 to remain in classrooms if they test negative, and as more private employers require testing or vaccination as a condition for returning to the workplace.
Cardona and Becerra left the hearing with a new task on their already long to-do lists: outline a plan to get more tests in schools.
“As we transition into fall and winter, students and teachers will be spending more time indoors,” Burr said. “We will likely see more cases of COVID, flu and other respiratory illnesses, and we’ll need to determine how to manage the potential surge in the demand for testing and treatments that will come with the holiday season. We will need a clear and straightforward strategy of what must happen in the next 60 and 90 days and beyond.”