Epidemics in the United States force early reversals of in-person learning

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ATLANTA – A few weeks after the start of the new school year, a growing number of US districts have halted in-person learning or switched to hybrid models due to the rapid rise in coronavirus infections.

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More than 80 school districts or chartered networks have closed or delayed in-person classes for at least one entire school in more than a dozen states. Others have sent entire grade levels home or have half of their students stay home on hybrid schedules.

Setbacks in most of the small rural districts that were among the first to return dampen hopes of a sustained and widespread return to classrooms after two years of schooling disrupted by the pandemic.

In Georgia, where in-person classes are suspended in more than 20 districts that have started the school year without a mask requirement, some superintendents say the virus appeared to spread through schools before sending students home.

Johnson County Middle School teacher Shaunteria Russell teaches math to her 7th grade students in an empty classroom on Friday in Wrightsville, Georgia. Weeks after the start of the new school year, a growing number of US districts have halted in-person learning or switched to hybrid models because of the rapid rise in coronavirus infections. With 40% of students in quarantine or isolation, the Johnson County district last week switched to online education until September 13. [ STEPHEN B. MORTON | AP ]

“We just couldn’t handle it with that much staff, having to cover classes and the spread so fast,” said Eddie Morris, district superintendent of 1,050 students in Johnson County, Georgia. With 40% of students in quarantine or isolation, the district switched last week to online education until September 13.

More than one in 100 school-aged children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks in Georgia, according to state health data released on Friday. Children aged 5 to 17 are currently more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than adults.

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Across the country, some schools start the year later than expected. A district in western Oregon postponed the start of classes for a week after several employees were exposed to a positive teacher during training.

Before the latest resurgence of the virus, hopes were high that schools across the country could approach normalcy, overcoming stops and starts in distance learning that interfered with the work of some parents and hurt the academic performance of many students. .

Most epidemiologists say they still believe face-to-face schooling can be conducted safely, and that this is important given the academic, social and emotional damage to students since the pandemic hit American schools. in March 2020.

In some cases, experts say, the reversals reflect a negligent approach among districts that have acted as if the pandemic is essentially over.

“People should realize that it is not over yet. This is a real problem, a real public health problem, ”said Dr. Tina Tan, professor of medicine at Northwestern University who chairs the section on infectious diseases at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Everything must be done to prevent the spread of COVID at school. “

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Tan and others say this means not only masks in schools, but a push for vaccination, social distancing, ventilation and other precautions, offering multiple layers of protection.

Dairean Dowling-Aguirre’s 8-year-old son was less than two weeks out of the school year when he and other third-graders were sent home last week in Cottonwood, Ariz.

The boy took online classes last year and was thrilled when his parents said he could attend school in person. But Dowling-Aguirre said she was becoming more anxious as infections increased. Masks were optional in her son’s class, and she said less than 20% of students wear them.

Then she got a call from the principal telling her that her son had been exposed and had to stay home for at least a week. What is of particular concern is that his parents are watching over his son after school and that his mother has multiple sclerosis.

“It’s definitely a big worry about how it’s going to be from now on and how the school is going to handle it,” she said.

In Georgia, more than 68,000 students – more than 4% of the state’s 1.7 million public schools – have so far been affected by the closures. Many superintendents said they have already registered more cases and quarantines than during the entire last year, when most rural districts held in-person classes for most students.

“This year you saw it very quickly,” said Jim Thompson, superintendent of Screven County, Georgia. “Children in the same class, you would have two or three in this class. “

Thompson said the 25-bed county hospital warned it was overloaded with infections, but what prompted him to send the district’s 2,150 students home was that he feared he would not be able to teach.

“You don’t want to start the school day and find that you don’t have enough teachers,” Thompson said.

The assault leads to changes in mask policies. Weeks before school started, only a handful of large districts covering less than a quarter of Georgia’s students required face coverings. Now, the mask mandates cover more than half of the students.

Part of the mask policy change is driven by a change in guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC now advises that when everyone is wearing masks, students exposed 3 feet or more apart should not be sent home if they are not showing symptoms.

Burke County, Ga., Superintendent Angela Williams said she believes the masks and the rule will help her district of 4,200 students near Augusta avoid further disruption after her current two-week shutdown .

“This will reduce the number of students that we have to quarantine,” Williams said.

Georgia told districts in early August they could choose their own quarantine policy and some relaxed rules.

Thompson, however, said Screven would likely tighten his policy upon his return and force everyone exposed to quarantine for at least a week due to Delta’s high level of contagion.

“We started out by using that latitude to the max,” said Thompson. “It didn’t work for us locally.”

Some districts are also looking to increase vaccination rates among eligible staff and students, but most schools in the South appear unlikely to mandate vaccination or teacher testing, unlike West Coast and Northeast states. is. Thompson said he sought to set up a vaccination clinic in Screven County last week but had so few takers it was canceled.

Despite the disruption, there is still strong resistance to masks. In Columbia County, which has 28,000 students, a suburb of Augusta, officials said they were replacing Plexiglas dividers in school cafeterias, as well as limiting field trips, assemblies school and group work in class. But the district continues to “strongly recommend” only masks.

Even some districts that have sent all of their students home do not expect to need masks when they return, facing opposition from parents and the school board.

“They wanted it to be the parents’ decision,” Morris said of the school board members.

By JEFF AMY, Associated Press.

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