Students are headed back into classrooms across the nation — many for the first time in more than a year.
But it’s not just the transition back to daily in-person learning that will prove challenging — there are also contentious debates over masking policies, worries about the more contagious delta variant, and confusing quarantine rules. Teachers are rethinking their own back-to-school routines as they navigate these difficult transitions and conversations.
At yet another crucial moment, Chalkbeat wants to hear directly from students, teachers, and parents. As school buildings reopen, what are you most nervous and most excited about? What should schools provide to students to support them academically and emotionally this school year? How should districts best spend their federal stimulus money? Your input will help steer and inform our reporting.
Let us know your thoughts in the form below or go here if you are on a mobile device. We’re always listening at [email protected]
Students are headed back into classrooms across the nation — many for the first time in more than a year.
Dozens of Illinois districts have been placed under probation for refusing to comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s universal mask mandate for preschool through high school.
Forty-one of the state’s 852 districts are on probation for not enforcing the order, which requires all school employees and students to wear face coverings indoors, according to Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. Two private schools and three public school districts have reversed their decision and will now follow the mandate issued by Pritzker in early August.
The action comes amid a growing debate over mask mandates as states and school districts grapple with a COVID-19 surge and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that students and school staff wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The Biden administration this week urged the federal education department to step in on the issue and open investigations or take other actions against any state or local rules that might interfere with schools reopening.
The Illinois board of education says it will reach out to districts to discuss the mandate requirement. Within 60 days of the conference, the districts on probation must submit a corrective plan to the regional superintendent of schools and state superintendent. If the school district does not submit a plan within 60 days, it will lose state recognition, resulting in a loss of state funding and blocking sport teams from participating in state athletic associations.
After Pritzker issued his mandate, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala followed up with a letter to superintendents threatening to take away state funding from public and private schools that do not comply with the mandate.
During a state board meeting Wednesday, superintendents pushed back against the state’s current position, calling it an overreach of power and asked the board to allow local school boards to create their own reopening plans.
One of those superintendents was Tonya Evans of Central Community School District 4. After the state required school mandates, she told the board, the school district received a backlash and threats. With the situation becoming so intense, the district has requested police presence at the district.
“We are in a community where we are 30 miles away from police presence,” she said. “This is not what school should look like for children, where we’re asking for police presence due to the unrest.”
How students will receive instruction while quarantined if COVID cases arise in their classrooms remains an unresolved question for the nation’s largest school system.
With less than a month before the first day of school, Mayor Bill de Blasio continued to drop hints about the policies for this fall, suggesting on Thursday that quarantines will be less disruptive this year because of rising vaccination rates.
“You’re going to see a lot fewer people going home,” de Blasio said at a press conference.
He reiterated that the policy for instruction during student quarantines will be coming out soon.
It’s unclear how long students will need to quarantine in the coming year, but de Blasio called the timeframe “very brief” and “not a long time in the context of the whole school year.” The mayor mentioned a seven-day quarantine, but education department officials said the policy remained 10 days. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends seven to 14 days. The city is expected to allow vaccinated students to remain in school, which aligns with federal guidance.
But large swaths of the school system remain ineligible for the vaccine, which has only been approved for children 12-years-old and up.
There are almost 76,000 preschool students and more than 450,000 elementary school students in New York City — children who need care when not in school, which could continue to be a burden on working families this year. Quarantine could also be chaotic in middle schools, where only a portion of students can be vaccinated. Even among eligible children, there is not universal uptake of the vaccine. That could be challenging in middle and high schools, where students mix in different classes all day, if only portions of a class are quarantined while others can continue attending school.
Additionally, there are wide gaps in vaccination rates by race and among different neighborhoods. About 56% of children ages 12 to 17 in New York City have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to city officials. Meanwhile, the share of Black children ages 13 to 17 with at least one dose is only 30%, according to the department of health. Some of the lowest vaccination rates in that age group are among white children in Brooklyn (23%) and on Staten Island (27%). Asian adolescents have the highest vaccination rate citywide, at 97%, according to city data.
That could raise equity questions if there are disparities in who misses class while quarantining, said Hedy Chang, director of the organization Attendance Works, which advocates for policies that counter student absenteeism.
Missing just two days of school every month can have harmful outcomes like lower graduation rates, she said. Missing more than a week consecutively, she added, is a “serious” amount of time.
“That’s a significant challenge,” Chang said. “Because learning is scaffolded. So if you miss out on seven days, but the rest of the class is still there, you’re still going to have to find a way to catch up on the concepts.”
She said that the city should consider tapping its network of community schools — where schools partner with local organizations to provide wrap-around support to students and families — to come up with school-specific ways to stay connected with students.
“How are we going to maintain learning?” she asked. “Community schools in New York City have long been a great approach to addressing this and keeping kids engaged.”
For summer school, New York City students who were required to attend were sent home with work, according to the education department. In instances where a whole class or school was closed, an official said remote instruction “may” happen but that “it varies by school.”
In places where classes have already resumed for the year, school districts around the country are grappling with the problem of what school should look like for quarantined students. Some are scrambling to hire teachers to work virtually with students who are out, while others are requiring teachers to deliver instruction in-person and online simultaneously. Other students are simply sent home with paper worksheets.
A study conducted earlier this year shows there may be a way to reduce the number of Covid infections on board commercial airplanes to virtually zero.Results of the study appeared in a peer-reviewed article published on Sept. 1 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings medical journal. The article — a joint effort by Mayo Clinic, the Georgia Department of Public Health and Delta Air Lines — showed that that one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test performed within 72 hours of flying decreased the rate of infected travelers onboard to 0.05%. That’s five people for every 10,000 passengers.At the time of the study, the rate of infection in the U.S. was 1.1% — or about 1 in every 100 people.’A pretty darn low number’The findings analyzed data from Delta’s preflight testing program which ran from December 2020 to May 2021.Here’s how Delta’s testing program worked: Passengers on select flights from New York City and Atlanta could fly to Italy, without having to quarantine upon arriving, if they tested negative for Covid-19 via a PCR test within 72 hours before the flight, a rapid antigen test prior to departure, and a rapid antigen test upon landing.Data from Delta’s preflight testing program provides new information on testing feasibility, testing accuracy and passenger infection rates on commercial flights.Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty ImagesOf the 9,853 people who tested negative via the PCR test, four tested positive at the airport via rapid antigen tests. The diagnoses were confirmed via a rapid molecular test, and these people were not allowed to fly. Of the passengers who flew to Italy, one tested positive upon landing.This translates to one case detection per 1,970 travelers “during a time of high prevalence of active infection in the United States,” according to the article.”That’s a pretty darn low number,” said Dr. Aaron J. Tande, the lead author of the article and an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.The study suggests one PCR test within three days of flying renders subsequent testing at the airport largely unnecessary, especially when combined with onboard masking requirements and increasing vaccination rates among flyers.’Limitations’ of the studyThe journal article mentions several “limitations” which may have affected the study’s results, including the role preflight tests had on traveler behavior. Participants with suspected Covid infections may have chosen not to travel. Others may have been more diligent about wearing masks and self-isolating knowing that they had to test negative in order to fly, said Tande. “I can’t say that that’s what made the number of tests that were positive so low — or was it truly that the 72-hour test was so good,” he told CNBC. “But … the end result is that it’s a safer flight for people, and that’s what we want.”If you repeated the study now… I think you would see a significant decrease in the rate of infection on board.”Dr. Aaron J. TandeMayo ClinicTande said that the findings are based on the Covid-19 strains that were circulating in the United States in the first half of 2021, not the more contagious delta variant that dominates now.”I don’t think that you could say that if you repeated the study now — with a different rate of community infection and a different virus — that you would get exactly the same result,” he told CNBC. “I think you would see a significant decrease in the rate of infection on board.”Safer but less feasible optionsThe pilot program considered five testing strategies, two of which may have detected even more infected flyers.For example, a single rapid molecular test at the airport may have found more infections because it minimizes the time between testing and flying, and thus could catch infections which occur during that time. Adding on a 72-hour PCR preflight test would likely find even more, according to the study.Though airports weren’t designed for large-scale medical testing, many set up makeshift facilities last year, such as Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport shown here.Alessia Pierdomenico | Bloomberg | Getty ImagesHowever, one preflight PCR test is the “better approach” because it is more feasible, said Tande. PCR tests are widely available, more “sensitive” — meaning they are better at detecting positive cases – and they take the logistics of testing out of airports, he said. Advance testing also gives infected travelers time to reorganize their plans, rather than surprising them just before their flights depart.Testing or vaccinated flights?Preflight PCR tests may make flying safer, but most passengers are flying now without one. And airlines are tight-lipped about mandating them in the future.However, testing could become a de facto rule on international flights if arrival countries require them for passengers to enter. A spokesperson for Delta Air Lines declined to say whether it would mandate testing for its passengers but said that “each country’s government is responsible for establishing their own requirements.”Tande said he would feel safer taking a flight that required passengers to pass preflight PCR tests. Yet, if given the choice, he said he preferred a vaccination-only flight more. “I would definitely go for the vaccinated flight — and (I’d) mask up,” he said.Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said last week that passengers will be required to be vaccinated on its international flights, according to news.com.au. U.S. officials are currently debating whether to require vaccinations to fly both domestically and internationally, as reported this week by The Washington Post.”Unfortunately, because of vaccination attitudes, Covid is going be with us for a long time,” said Tande. “With ongoing masking and testing before flying … we can improve safety so that we can continue to sort of function as a normal society.”
After randomly testing students for COVID last year, the Philadelphia school district plans to focus only on symptomatic students when school starts in less than two weeks — a change the teachers union opposes.
Union President Jerry Jordan said that testing “must include asymptomatic students,” or those who are infected but don’t show any signs of the disease.
But Superintendent William Hite said at Thursday’s board meeting that “it is more valuable for students to be in classrooms receiving instruction than to be removed for testing.” He said that the district wide student positivity rate was less than 1% during last year’s hybrid learning, when 27% of enrolled students returned to buildings in the spring.
The board also plans to hold a special meeting on Aug. 24 “to consider a resolution to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for employees and all contractors” who work in district facilities. Earlier this week, Hite said that he didn’t think the logistics of such a mandate could be worked out before the opening of school.
District officials expect most of the district’s 120,000 students to return for in-person learning when schools open on Aug. 31. To prevent the spread of COVID, the district plans to rely on “multiple layers of safety,” including universal masking, weekly testing of all staff members, on-site testing of symptomatic students, air purifiers in classrooms and other spaces, and regular deep cleaning. The testing program will cost about $36 million.
Hite said the testing policy is subject to change depending on circumstances and the recommendations of health authorities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “screening testing” as a virus mitigation strategy in K-12 schools, especially when it will be difficult to maintain at least three feet of distance, as will be the case in many Philadelphia schools at full in-person enrollment. Screening, or regularly testing all or a sample of the student body, is meant to find asymptomatic cases or to catch COVID before people show symptoms.
But, in schools without routine screening, the CDC does say rapid testing of symptomatic students can help schools figure out who is sick and who was exposed.
In a statement to Chalkbeat, Jordan said he favors universal testing, universal masking, and vaccination. He said he plans to continue discussing the issue with the district. He noted that only students ages 12 and up are eligible for vaccination right now, meaning that each day “tens of thousands of unvaccinated individuals will be entering our buildings.”
At their first in-person meeting in more than a year, board members seemed satisfied with the new testing policy, but asked detailed questions about what will trigger a quarantine at a school. Hite said positive cases will be reported to the state Department of Health, which will make those decisions.
Some students participating in extracurricular activities, including athletes and band and choir members, also will be tested once or twice a week, although they can opt out if they provide proof of vaccination, Hite said.
The board approved two resolutions, one for $6 million and another for $30 million, with Dentrust P.C. and other vendors for COVID testing of staff on site, mobile sites for students and staff who are symptomatic, as well as providing other support.
It also approved its Health and Safety Plan required under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, legislation, but only after an extensive discussion of what will happen if students must be quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19.
Among other provisions, there is a plan for 22 “quarantine teachers” to support regular teachers, said Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks.
Brooks said they are still hiring such teachers.
Board members were skeptical this plan would be adequate. “I don’t know why you just don’t turn on the cameras in the classrooms,” said board member Lisa Salley. “It sounds like a logistical nightmare.”
Hite said that all quarantined students would also have access to their regular teachers.
In a surprise, after lowering expectations on whether a vaccine mandate for staff could be reached before students return to school, the district announced late Thursday that the board would proceed with a vote Aug. 24, although Hite said there are still outstanding issues.
“We’ve been in conversation with all our union partners, and to a person all are in support of a vaccine mandate,” he told the board. “The thing we’re trying to resolve, all the information individuals need to get the vaccine and the consequences if in fact they choose not to.”
Jordan has said publicly he supports a negotiated vaccine agreement for his members. In interviews with Chalkbeat, so did Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals, and Royce Merriweather, head of the Philadelphia union of school safety officers. The heads of two other unions representing custodians, food service workers and other school employees could not be reached.
Earlier in the week, Jordan criticized Hite’s administration for not opening talks about what a teacher vaccine mandate might look like, calling the lack of any serious discussion “absurd.” On Wednesday, he issued a statement taking a softer line, saying he and Hite had had an additional conversation. But Thursday afternoon a union spokesperson said they were unaware of the board’s plan to meet Aug. 24 on the subject of a mandate.
As part of its plan, the district has also installed air purifiers in all classrooms, gyms, auditoriums and other public areas, and is cleaning and sanitizing “walls, floor, furniture, doors, windows, bathrooms, fixtures and dispensers, railings, light switches and more” in every school, according to a district statement.
More than 1,000 touchless hydration stations are located in schools, and these are being tested for lead. Each school will also have touchless hand sanitizer stations and supplies “to support frequent handwashing, according to the district.”
Another point of concern is whether schools can maintain a social distance of three feet in classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces.
“While three-feet distancing is recommended and will be encouraged where possible, the priority from both the CDC and PDPH is the full return of students to in-person learning with multiple layers of safety in place,” the district’s statement said.
Some educators are nervous about the ability to distance when schools are at or near capacity.
Jeannine Payne, principal of the 350-student Richard R. Wright Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion, said social distancing — even at six feet — was not a problem last spring, when only 50 or so students regularly attended in person.
With K-5 students, nearly all Wright’s students are ineligible for vaccination.
”The district says because we are under a mask mandate, we can go under three feet. But they didn’t give us a number for how much. It’s been made very clear that the priority is bringing back the students and 100% in-person programming,” she said.
In reiterating the union’s openness to a vaccine mandate for its members, Jordan noted that “nearly 90% of educators nationwide have been vaccinated,” although no figures are available for those in Philadelphia. He said in a prior statement that the union “had no reason to believe” the figure in Philadelphia is any lower.
Both the principals and teachers unions are deep in talks about new contracts with the district as their current pacts expire at the end of this month. A teachers union spokesperson said that COVID precautions are not part of the contract talks, but still must be worked out in detail.
Cooper, the principals union president, agrees. “We think to the degree possible, folks should be vaccinated,” she said “We would also like to negotiate an agreement around vaccinations. We think it’s in the best healthy interest of everyone.”
She said the ideal would be to have an agreement in place before school opens, and said she has had just one exploratory conversation with Hite about a possible mandate.
It is not an easy ask, she said.
“To give [others] that kind of freedom over [a person’s] body is serious business,” she said. “While we recognize that vaccines are extremely important, we feel like there should be meaningful dialogue around it.”
Merriweather, president of the union that represents school safety officers, said he was “personally open” to a vaccine mandate, but has not been involved in active discussions.
“With everything that’s been happening, it’s a small thing to ask for someone to get a shot to protect themselves, their loved ones, and also the kids. I have two grandchildren that have gotten shot, two younger ones that aren’t able because of their age. It is a concern,” he said.
In a statement, the district called a vaccine mandate for employees “an additional layer of safety in our schools and offices,” while calling it “a complex matter that the district and school board are actively considering” in talks with “all of our labor union partners … we will continue to have ongoing conversations with all appropriate parties to inform a final decision soon.”
Saying the risks of quarantine outweigh the risk of disease, a Colorado school district insists it won’t report COVID cases to local public health authorities, even though state officials say the law requires it.
“It is our judgement, backed by months of student and community observation and interaction, with corresponding experiential data, that the risks of quarantine far outweigh the risks of the disease,” District 49 CEO Peter Hilts wrote in a communication to families Thursday. “That is why we will not facilitate voluntary reporting and contact tracing that are designed to direct healthy individuals into quarantine and isolation.”
Hilts initially laid out his approach to COVID this school year in a memo in early August, as well as in a briefing to the school board, as first reported by the Colorado Springs Gazette. After leading his school district through the 2020-21 school year, Hilts concluded that too many students had to quarantine and that frequent switches to online learning were bad for students.
“Our experience last year was that quarantines were almost a reflexive response to any report [of COVID], verified or second hand, suspected or confirmed,” Hilts told Chalkbeat. “We sent thousands of students into quarantine who never got sick and in some cases they missed weeks of instruction.”
But when Chalkbeat asked Gov. Jared Polis about the district’s decision at a press conference Wednesday, he said schools must report COVID cases: “That is the law and that is unambiguous.”
State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy reiterated that point at a separate press conference Thursday and again in an interview with Chalkbeat.
“State statute and state regulations outline that cases of reportable conditions, as well as suspected and confirmed outbreaks, are required to be reported by law,” she said. “So that would be an expectation.”
Throughout the pandemic, there has been tension between state authority and local control when it comes to COVID protocols. Many superintendents chafed under state quarantine rules and blamed them for challenges in maintaining in-person learning, even as other school leaders said the state had not provided enough guidance and left too much up to school districts that lacked public health expertise.
This year, Polis has let the state of emergency that granted him extra authority lapse and given school districts authority over everything from masks to quarantines, while also relaxing many regulations. But state health officials say that doesn’t extend to reporting of communicable diseases.
Colorado, like other states, maintains a long list of contagious reportable diseases, from anthrax and plague to measles and chickenpox. Laboratories need to inform public health authorities when they identify positive cases. So do physicians and people in charge of schools and licensed day care centers.
Not reporting a known case of these communicable diseases is a misdemeanor that carries potential fines and jail time, Herlihy said, though it’s very rare for the state or local authorities to pursue criminal charges.
“I’m hoping that there is a misunderstanding there,” Herlihy told Chalkbeat. “We would want to ensure they recognize the requirements in the statute and what their obligations are.”
Schools also have to report suspected or confirmed outbreaks, defined as five or more cases from separate households in the same classroom or activity in a two-week period. Hilts said the district is complying with this requirement.
The reason for this, Herlihy said, is to identify patterns of disease transmission and help public health agencies intervene early on.
“The risk would be that ongoing transmission could occur without people knowing,” Herlihy said.
When laboratories report cases, they provide the name, date of birth, and address of the person who tested positive. Public health officials might know right away that a school-aged child has tested positive, but they wouldn’t know what school that person attended until they were able to interview the family. When cases are increasing rapidly and contact tracers are overwhelmed, it might take even longer to realize there are multiple cases at a single school.
“It is quite possible that school officials would be the first to know about a cluster,” Herlihy said.
State public health officials said they are not aware of other districts taking District 49’s approach, but Hilts said he talks regularly with other superintendents and believes his district is not alone.
The state’s published guidance for schools is more ambiguous than rules and statute.
“If school personnel perform and interpret rapid testing on-site, they are functioning as a clinical lab and are required to report all results,” Colorado’s Practical Guide to Operationalizing CDC’s School Guidance reads. “Schools and child care facilities are also encouraged to report single cases of which they become aware to their local public health agency, even if testing was performed elsewhere.”
This wording — “encouraged to report” — also appears on the website of El Paso County Public Health, which oversees District 49. A spokeswoman for the county health department said her agency hopes the state clarifies its guidance soon.
A spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the guidance would be revised to align with state public health rules that require reporting.
Hilts said the district has consulted with legal counsel and believes its policy is within the law. However, he said he’s open to new information and making adjustments.
“The cases are reported” by the laboratory or a medical provider, Hilts said. “Our challenge is whether it is our responsibility to report it. I’m not concerned that we are going to conceal or mask COVID positive cases.”
Hilts said the district still consults regularly with public health and will still inform families and staff if they had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. However, schools will not help with contact tracing or enforce quarantines.
In his communication to families, Hilts said El Paso County Public Health is still directing students and staff to quarantine, even though Polis said Wednesday that districts can decide whether to follow quarantine guidance.
“The contradiction between the governor and county messaging creates ambiguity, which we resolve by exercising local leadership,” he wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas became the latest member of the U.S. Supreme Court to take aim at the media, defending the court as nonpartisan Thursday as he warned against “destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want, when we want it,” according to reports. “I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” Thomas told an audience at the University of Notre Dame, the Washington Post reported. “So if they think you are anti-abortion or something personally, they think that’s the way you always will come out. They think you’re for this or for that. They think you become like a politician.” “I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference.” — Justice Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme CourtThomas’ words came in the wake of the high court’s controversial 5-4 decision earlier this month to allow a restrictive Texas abortion law to take effect. Critics worry it could lead to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision being overturned. Thomas has previously called on the court to overturn the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion throughout the U.S. Last weekend, newest Justice Amy Coney Barrett defended her colleagues, saying they were not “partisan hacks.” She also blamed the media for making decisions that “seem results-oriented.”AMY CONEY BARRETT SAYS SUPREME COURT JUSTICES AREN’T ‘PARTISAN HACKS’ AMID DEM COURT-PACKING THREATS: REPORT”Sometimes, I don’t like the results of my decisions. But it’s not my job to decide cases based on the outcome I want,” she said. “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.”
Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is seen on the South Lawn of the White House, Oct. 26, 2020. (Getty Images)
Thomas agreed with that sentiment. “You do your job and you go cry alone,” he said. But he also warned against judges acting politically.”The court was thought to be the least dangerous branch and we may have become the most dangerous.” “The court was thought to be the least dangerous branch and we may have become the most dangerous.” — Justice Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme CourtLiberal Justice Stephen Breyer also recently reassured that his court colleagues weren’t “junior league” politicians, according to the Post. Following the abortion decision, Democrats have revived their call to add seats to the Supreme Court to try to shift its majority left after former President Trump added three conservative justices. CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APPDemocrats’ calls to pack the court grew to a fever pitch when Barrett was confirmed about a week before the 2020 presidential election after bitter memories of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to give then-President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, a confirmation hearing after Garland was nominated to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly in 2016.McConnell claimed at the time that the next president should decide. The court is scheduled to hear a Mississippi case over a law that bans abortions in the state at 15 weeks in the upcoming term, according to The Hill. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
It was the monotony that wore down Aisha Oyediran.
She woke up each school day, opened her laptop, stared at the screen — then eat, sleep, repeat. Add the stress of schoolwork and the loneliness of remote learning, and things started feeling bleak.
“It just kept going,” said Aisha, 17, who last year was a senior at Newark’s Central High School. “There was no end to it.”
Aisha managed to excel despite the pandemic dreariness and is now headed to Johns Hopkins University. Yet the prospect of returning to classrooms amid rising COVID cases has stirred conflicting emotions.
“I’m very excited,” said Aisha, who moved to campus on Friday. “And also very scared.”
She isn’t alone. Many students are eager to finally reunite with friends and teachers, yet nervous about socializing and learning in the flesh. Some are still processing traumatic experiences they endured during the pandemic.
The turmoil of the past year, the anxiety-provoking return to classrooms, the pent-up demand for support — all that has experts predicting an unprecedented surge in student mental-health needs. Now, flush with federal money, schools are racing to respond by expanding mental health services that, in the past, often got short shrift.
“You can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said George Worsley, a long-time school social worker in Newark. “If you do, the devastation is going to be monumental.”
‘Students are struggling’
The pandemic wasn’t great for anyone’s mental health. But for many vulnerable young people, it was disastrous.
In addition to the isolation and frustration of remote learning, many students from low-income families also faced difficulties getting online, uncertainty around food and housing, and pressure to help care for siblings or contribute financially. Black and Hispanic Americans, subject to disproportionately high unemployment and COVID rates, also were more likely than white people to report anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
In addition, the debates about racism and images of police violence roiling the country took a psychic toll on many Black people.
“As a Black girl, it was kind of difficult to watch,” said Olufunsho Olaniyan, 18, a Newark student and fellow at The Gem Project, a youth-leadership program. “That’s not what you want to see: people who look like you dying all the time.”
Mental health problems among young people, already on the rise pre-pandemic, spiked over the past year. Teens reported feeling more stressed and disconnected, and mental health crises accounted for a larger share of children’s emergency room visits. All the while, students had less access to school-based social services and outlets such as sports, arts, and afterschool programs.
“If it wasn’t evident before, it’s screaming in our face now,” said Tahirah Crawford, director of college placement at People’s Prep Charter School, “students are struggling with a whole lot of things.”
The return to school should offer most students some relief, even if it means readjusting to old rules and routines. Yet students who actually preferred remote learning because it spared them from bullying or harsh discipline policies might dread going back. And even those eager to return can’t avoid fears of the delta variant and another round of school closures.
“The world is so unpredictable right now,” said Nivioska Bruce, director of school clinical interventions at CarePlus NJ, a nonprofit mental-healthcare provider. “That causes stress, and stress does a lot to the human body.”
‘We’re outnumbered here’
Many schools have not kept up with students’ soaring mental health needs.
In a survey last school year, 70% of elementary and middle school principals said they didn’t have enough mental-health professionals on staff to meet students’ needs. And existing staff are overwhelmed. In Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, there are nearly 540 students for every counselor — more than twice the recommended number of students per counselor.
“We’re outnumbered here,” said Worsley, who’s retiring this month after five decades in the Newark school system. “It just became overwhelming.”
Congress has thrown a lifeline to schools in the form of pandemic-relief money, including some earmarked for mental health services. New Jersey set aside $30 million of its portion of the federal aid for mental health, and district leaders nationwide say they plan to use part of their allotments for that purpose.
But if districts use the federal money to boost staff, they will have to find some other way to fund those positions when the aid runs out — or else lay people off. And hiring itself could be a challenge.
“There’s a huge demand right now for mental-health professionals,” said Molly Fagan, executive director of Family and Children Services, a New Jersey social service agency. “They’re very much in short supply.”
The mental-health staffers already in schools find that much of their time is spent providing legally mandated services and evaluations. That can leave students without diagnosed needs waiting in vain for help.
“It’s long been the case that there are far more kids who need services than actually receive them,” said Dr. Linda Raffaele Mendez, a professor of school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Her university is trying to help address the staffing problem. Through a partnership with Newark Public Schools, graduate students will provide counseling in four of the district’s 60-plus schools this year.
What schools can do now
Schools don’t need to wait for reinforcements to start helping students when they return.
They can start by assessing students’ mental-health needs, though some surveys require parental consent, which can be difficult to obtain for every student, Raffaele Mendez said. Teachers should also watch for unusual behavior, such as frequent absences or trips to the nurse’s office, which could be symptoms of anxiety or other mental health issues.
“Anxiety can present in a number of different ways,” she said. “Sometimes you might not be able to see it at all because kids can hide it pretty well.”
Teachers can promote mental health by having students practice deep breathing and meditation, and share their feelings during morning meetings. Educators also should tell students it’s fine to feel nervous or uncomfortable as they readjust to school, said Tonia Lloyd, who coaches students on resiliency.
“Everyone is experiencing some level of anxiety,” she said, “and that’s OK.”
Educators also can adopt a “trauma-informed” approach, which recognizes that children who’ve endured hardships might act out or shut down in the classroom, said Nivioska Bruce of CarePlus NJ.
“It’s not making an assumption that these kids are just being bad,” she said. “Take it a step further and try to find out what’s really going on.”
Schools can offer social-emotional learning, which trains students how to identify emotions, manage stress, and other healthy habits. People’s Prep plans to introduce “Wellness Wednesdays” this school year, where students will spend their advisory period studying those skills and practicing mindfulness and journaling.
“Resiliency and wellness are going to be especially important this school year,” said Nicolette Rittenhouse-Young, the school’s director of student support. That’s because students “have so much more on their plates — more stress, more loss, more changes and transitions.”
Viva White, a licensed clinical social worker whose son attends Newark’s Belmont Runyon School, said she’s happy to see schools promoting self-help skills. But she emphasized that such skills aren’t substitutes for counseling and other support services. As schools reopen, families should demand that students get the mental-health help they need.
“Everyone is going to need support,” she said, “because everyone is going through it.”
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the Ohio Republican who voted to impeach former President Trump, announced Thursday that he will not seek reelection, citing the “toxic dynamics inside” the Republican Party.”It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as your Member of Congress and I will treasure the remaining months that I have left in office,” he posted. “Looking critically at our record these past few years, I take great pride in the wins that our office achieved. I have always viewed this job as having two critical components: legislation and constituent services. On both, I would put our record up against any other office in the country.”The Associated Press referred to Gonzalez, who served two terms, as a 36-year-old former professional football player with a “once-bright political future.” The report pointed out that Trump, who apparently did not forget that Gonzalez was one of 10 House Republicans who voted for his impeachment, endorsed his 2022 opponent, Max Miller, for the seat.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) is seen during a House Financial Services Committee oversight hearing to discuss the Treasury Department’s and Federal Reserve’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on December 02, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Trump is still the most influential voice from the Republican Party, according to many political observers. The report pointed out that the Ohio Republican Party censured him in May over the impeachment vote “in the face of fierce pushback from his party’s conservative wing.”In February, NBC News reported that his vote may have cost him his House seat and “all but erased his chances to run for an open Senate seat next year.”While Democrats have clear fissures between the progressive wing of the party and the more conservative wing, the Republican Party is clearly divided between those who see Trump as the best viable candidate in 2024 and the face of the party and those who see him as a political albatross.The Cleveland Plains Dealer reported that Trump held a Lorain County rally in June to support Miller’s candidacy and called Gonzalez “a grandstanding RINO, not respected in D.C., who voted for the unhinged, unconstitutional impeachment. The witch hunt.”Gonzalez’s office did not immediately respond to an email from Fox News for comment.GET THE FOX NEWS APP”While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision, it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision,” he said in the Twitter post.The Associated Press contributed to this report
High school athletes and coaches participating in sports considered “high risk” for contracting the coronavirus will be required to have at least one dose of the COVID vaccine by the first day of competitive play, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday.
“We want to make sure our athletes are safe given particular the nature of these sports. And so we’re putting that mandate in place,” de Blasio said during his weekly radio appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.
The mandate will apply to an estimated 20,000 students who participate in the Public School Athletic League, or PSAL. It includes football, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse, competitive cheerleading, and rugby. Vaccination will also be required for bowling, since it takes place indoors.
The education department said the new mandate is aligned with state and federal guidance that calls for sports to be canceled in communities like New York City, where there is high transmission of the virus, unless all participants are vaccinated. Students will be eligible for medical exemptions, a spokesperson said.
Last year, some districts that allowed sports leagues to continue competing saw an astounding number of coronavirus cases linked to athletes, such as in Memphis, where 83% of positive cases among school communities were tied to players and coaches.
In New York City, school staff who are part of PSAL are also required to be vaccinated. That goes further than the city’s requirement for teachers, who can present weekly negative COVID tests in lieu of vaccination. But de Blasio has hinted that a more strict mandate may be in store for the city’s educators. Already, cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago — the second and third largest school districts, respectively, behind New York City — have required vaccinations.
“We’re looking at additional options right now,” de Blasio said Friday. “We’re talking to the stakeholders about it. There’s a lot of energy out there for a larger mandate and that’s something we’re considering quickly.”
School districts across the country have largely declined to require students to be vaccinated to attend classes. But the tide could soon change. This week, Culver City in California announced it would require eligible students to get the shot. When it comes to student athletes, New York’s capital city of Albany will require full vaccination to play high-risk sports. The state of Hawaii also mandates full vaccination. In Aurora, Colo., unvaccinated student athletes must be tested regularly. Last week, President Joe Biden urged school districts to include COVID vaccination in sports physicals.
School sports were paused for most of the year in New York City, picking up in April and running for an extended season through the summer. Athletes were required to wear masks and undergo weekly coronavirus testing.