For schools to stay open and safe, President Joe Biden said last week, they need to require vaccinations for teachers and staff, regularly test unvaccinated people and have universal masking. So far, many large districts are succeeding at one — masking — but only a minority offer the others.
In a sample of 100 large urban districts, including a district in each state, 9 in 10 are requiring students to wear masks, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which has been tracking districts’ responses to the pandemic since its start. Just one quarter are requiring teachers to be vaccinated. Fifteen are regularly testing students. And student quarantine policies are generally much less strict than they were last spring.
New York City public schools, which start Monday, are an anomaly on several measures, including the absence of a remote option and a more strict approach with quarantines.
So far this school year, there have been temporary closures but none of the 100 districts have stopped offering full-time, in-person school for COVID reasons. But many plans were hastily revised as school neared and as the delta variant spread. (Children under 12 cannot be vaccinated and most likely will not be eligible until November. Nationwide, less than half of those ages 12-18 are fully vaccinated.)
The biggest change has been offering a remote option to families not ready for a return to school. Ninety-four of the 100 large districts now have that option — all but those in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; El Paso, Texas; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Dayton, Ohio; and Manchester, New Hampshire. In more than half, it is available to all students, with no restrictions or cap on enrollment.
Another change has been in mask rules. Eighty-nine of the 100 large districts now require masks, up from half in mid-August. (One, Mesa Public Schools in Arizona, requires them only if at least 3% of the school population tests positive.)
Twenty-seven of the districts require staff to be vaccinated, up from four in mid-August. Just one, Los Angeles, is requiring vaccines for eligible students, as of last week. Fifteen are testing students regularly, up from seven in mid-August.
The Biden administration said Thursday that it would require that federally employed teachers, like those at Head Start and Bureau of Indian Education schools, be vaccinated, and called on governors to require vaccines for school staff in their states. (Nine states and Washington, D.C., already do.) Biden said federal funds could be used for screening testing. And those funds could also be given to any districts that face funding cuts because they require masks in states that ban it, like Florida.
Quarantine policies are perhaps the biggest change from last year. Now in many instances, students who share a classroom with an infected person will not have to stay home to quarantine — and their families will not be informed that a classmate was infected.
That’s because many districts are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is more lenient on who needs to quarantine in K-12 schools than in other settings. Inside schools, only unvaccinated children who are less than 6 feet away and unmasked, or less than 3 feet away and masked, need to quarantine, and only if they were exposed for more than 15 minutes over the course of a day, according to the CDC. Since most districts are requiring masks and aiming for 3 feet of distance, it’s less likely that even students in the same classroom qualify.
Public health experts have said this is safe, especially when balancing the risks of keeping children out of school for more time.
“I think that we should let the exposed kids come to school, if they were effectively wearing their masks,” said Dr. Danielle Zerr, division chief of pediatric infectious disease at Seattle Children’s Hospital, who said that masks and vaccines for all eligible people in students’ lives were most important for COVID prevention in schools.
Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the COVID response at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed, and said quarantines should not occur at all: “We should allow close contacts to remain in school, masked and with rapid antigen testing every few days.”
As a result of the guidance, quarantines have been relatively rare in many places. In Denver Public Schools 0.4% of students are quarantined, according to the latest data. In Nashville, Tennessee, where the infection rate is four times that in Denver, 4.3% of public school students are quarantined. Both school systems started in August.
Some districts are even more lenient than the CDC recommends. Twenty-eight — including in Austin, Texas; Hawaii; and Sacramento, California — exempt students from quarantine as long as they wear masks. Of the eight large districts in Florida in the database, seven allow students to return from quarantine as soon as 2-5 days after exposure. Miami-Dade County public schools require a 10-day quarantine.
Again, New York City is an exception. Entire elementary classrooms will quarantine if someone in the class tests positive. While this is among the most cautious approaches, it is more lenient than the district’s policy last year, when two cases shut down entire schools.
Districts are trying to avoid widespread quarantines, which have been a major disruption for children’s educations. They also cause uncertainty for parents; some say they cannot return to work if they may unexpectedly need to be home with their children for two weeks.
Yet some parents are concerned that even if a person in their child’s classroom is infected, they will not know about it, assuming their child was masked and distanced. For privacy reasons, many schools inform parents only that there is a positive case in a school, but not which classroom or grade it was in.
After pressure from parents and school staff, Denver public schools recently allowed principals to identify the classroom in which there was a positive case, even to families that do not need to quarantine. In other districts, like Portland Public Schools in Oregon, where there were 89 positive cases and 74 people quarantined in a district of 49,000 students as of Sept. 5, principals cannot share any details about positive cases because of student confidentiality.
“We’ve been really careful with our mitigation strategies and layered approach, so we’re very confident in who is potentially exposed and who isn’t,” said Brenda Martinek, the district’s chief of student support services. “So what I’m hoping is that our school communities will trust that.”