Friday, August 13, 2021

District update: Stronger health precautions, far more virtual options

In just two weeks since our last analysis of reopening plans, school districts have stepped up health precautions and expanded virtual learning options as they prepare for students’ return amid mounting worries about more contagious variants of COVID-19. 

So far, our review of 100 large and urban school districts finds all of them plan to resume classes in person. 

Districts are increasing safety precautions. We note a dramatic increase in district mask requirements since late July. There has been some movement toward vaccine requirements and testing protocols. While they remain uncommon, testing and vaccine requirements are starting to gain momentum with backing from teachers union and state leaders. 

However, tensions are running high for district leaders as they welcome students back to school amid rising case counts. Far too many are navigating last-minute preparations on their own, due to hands-off leadership from their states—or, worse, counterproductive moves by state leaders that exacerbate fights over mask mandates.

Districts stay the course on in-person learning, ramp up virtual options

So far, all the districts in our review still plan to reopen physical campuses to students next year. 

However, the number of districts offering students a virtual alternative to in-person learning has nearly doubled, from 41 to 79 percent.

How districts offer virtual options varies. Some are limited to students who are medically vulnerable, while others are open to anyone who signs up. Some have been available since the spring and others are more recent options, likely in response to rising COVID case rates. 

Cobb County School District is offering several new options: Cobb Online Learning Academy for online learners in grades 6–12, a local school-based online learning program for students in grades pre-K–5, Cobb Horizon Academy as an alternative school for online learners, and the Cobb Virtual Academy for part-time online learners. Students chose one of these options this spring. The district has not reopened its enrollment process this summer, despite requests from parents who wanted to change their selections.

Other districts have begun to offer more options targeted at younger, K–8 students who are not eligible for vaccines. Aurora Public Schools has added a semester-long “Flex” option for K–8 students this fall. Students who choose this option will participate remotely in instructional activities, including some live classes, at their home school through January. 

In California, where recently passed legislation allows all districts to offer independent study programs, districts are offering this as a remote option for medically fragile students or other learners with special circumstances. About 3 percent of LAUSD students are electing this option for next year. 

Nearly all districts have mask policies, and far more now require masks

In just two weeks, the share of districts with mask requirements for some or all students has jumped from a third (38) to almost two-thirds (61). Most of the remaining districts (34) have policies that encourage masks but don’t require them. Only five do not communicate a mask policy.

Some districts are clashing with states over masks. Officials in Dallas and Bexar County, TX (which includes San Antonio), won initial court victories after defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s policy blocking mask requirements. And Florida education officials are threatening their state’s second-largest district, Broward County Public Schools, with “sanctions” over its policy requiring masks.

Legal and political battles over safety precautions are undermining trust in local schools and risk adding further strain on district leaders already scrambling to bring students safely back to school.

Vaccine requirements, still rare, are gaining momentum

Just three districts in our review—Denver Public Schools, D.C. Public Schools, and the San Francisco Unified School District—require employees to be vaccinated. The Hawaii Department of Education is the only district communicating a requirement for students to be vaccinated, and it only applies to student athletes.

Vaccine requirements are gaining momentum, as some governors, mayors, and teachers union leaders line up behind them. These numbers should start to shift in the coming weeks. At a minimum, the numbers should rise to reflect California’s eight other large and urban school districts in our sample, after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order that all teachers must get vaccinated or tested this school year.

Testing remains an overlooked safety precaution

While vaccines and masks dominate the headlines surrounding school reopening, only ten districts have employed another vital safety precaution: mandatory COVID testing for students and/or staff.

Nevada’s Clark County School District is requiring staff to submit to regular COVID testing. Others, like Baltimore City Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and St. Louis Public Schools, have testing requirements for students and staff. The School District of Philadelphia has a plan to test staff and students with known COVID exposures. 

In North Carolina, Guilford County Public Schools requires regular testing of unvaccinated staff and unvaccinated student athletes. Not only does this provide a critical layer of protection against the virus, but it also creates an incentive for staff and older students to get vaccinated so they can avoid test requirements.

California’s largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified Student District, plans an even more aggressive testing regimen than Gov. Newsom called for in his Thursday order for teacher vaccination. LAUSD’s plan calls for weekly testing of all students and employees—whether or not they are vaccinated—though the district’s announcement also stresses that getting vaccinated is the most important thing anyone can do to guard against the virus.

While it isn’t choosing to require COVID tests, the San Antonio Independent School District has a robust voluntary testing program in place for students and staff and reports the results by school on a publicly accessible website. Transparently reporting information can help alert parents when an outbreak is occuring at their school and help build trust that their schools are safe.

Districts are updating quarantine protocols

A little more than half of districts (55 percent) are updating their quarantine protocols for students or staff exposed to COVID. Such protocols will almost certainly be put into use this year, given current conditions of COVID community infection and increased rates of community spread. Atlanta-area schools reported 1,500 student COVID cases in just the first week of school.

Quarantine policies appear to range from a few days after a reported exposure to a maximum of fourteen, similar to last school year. The most notable adjustment is that many districts (29 percent) will exempt vaccinated students from quarantining so long as they show no symptoms. Other quarantine exemptions districts provide include students who recently tested positive for COVID and have recovered (5 percent) or students who are masked and asymptomatic (4 percent).

Note: Counts exceed 55 because some districts provide multiple exemptions.

Not all districts plan to offer remote instruction for students or teachers under quarantine, often due to state policies. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools states that it is not authorized under current law to transition students to remote learning during periods of quarantine. The Texas Education Agency is considering providing an exception to state-restricted remote learning, allowing students to receive up to 20 days of remote instruction without a loss in state funding in case they have to quarantine. 

Quarantines have the potential to create variable access to in-person instruction. New restrictions on remote learning (which weren’t in effect last school year), coupled with a lack of clarity surrounding how educators will be supported in helping students master content when some can be absent for up to two weeks at a time, raise the possibility that many students will face disruptions to their learning this school year.

Parents and educators brace for another year of uncertainty

School communities are heading into a third school year of unpredictable disruptions to student learning and safety, with unclear guidance, little time to adjust, and new constraints due to policy changes that assumed the pandemic was largely over. 

Meanwhile, many parents are facing expectations from their employers that they will return to in-person work but remain unclear on whether this is even possible, given the lack of clarity in school safety protocols. Delayed vaccinations for children under 12, combined with emerging data on increased impact of the COVID Delta variant on children, has heightened parents’ concerns. Remote options are not available for all the students or families who want them this year. And continued politicization over mask policies complicates district leaders’ ability to make quick decisions on basic safety measures.

It is surprising that we continue to be surprised by ongoing pandemic-related disruptions and that reopening schools with clear health and safety policies in fall 2021 is an exception and not the rule. We need more examples of bold leadership that set a clear vision for keeping students safe and learning, all year. The impact of the last two school years’ disruptions on students’ academic learning, wellbeing, and basic engagement with school are vast. Families and students demand a return to face-to-face instruction, and assuring them that they can trust this return to be safe and the policies to be reasonable is not simply an option this year. It is imperative.

CRPE will continue to track and report on how school systems prepare for school reopening. Please see our publicly available database for district-level detail.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post misstated the number of districts in our review that required vaccines. It has been updated to reflect an accurate count.

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