Schools Return To In-Person Instruction, Are Students Safe?

by Elpidio R. Estioko

Despite all the debates and apprehensions, schools reopened anyway!

School administrators, teachers, students, and other stakeholders, believe that going back to the classroom outweighs online instruction despite the surge of the COVID-19 cases in most areas in the country.

As a teacher and parent, I agree. But can we ensure the safety of the students?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with guidelines for COVID-19 preventions in K-12 schools. The agency believes that students benefit more from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in Fall 2021 is a priority.

Since this is a priority program, CDC believes that vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the students safe. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

Due to the highly contagious and fast circulating Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. In addition, CDC recommends schools maintain at least three feet of physical distancing between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk.

When schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining social distancing, CDC reminded the schools to also impose layers of prevention to keep schools safe such as screening testing, ventilation, handwashing, and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection.

School administrators need to make sure students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness. They should be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care and this must be monitored strictly to avoid the spread of the virus.

To guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies, localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and the occurrence of outbreaks.

The problem, however, is that some local elected officials are not following the school mask tracker and are loosening the rules.

In fact, elected officials in several states have made mask mandates illegal, saying the decision should be left to parents. Despite this, most states’ school districts require students to wear masks.

In Hawaii, schools are opening, and the state’s Department of Education says on its website: “Masks must always be worn correctly and consistently by all students and staff when indoors.”

California also required all students to wear masks. Both California Governor Gavin Newsom and the school districts are one in the mask mandate.

Even in Florida where the governor banned wearing masks, school districts have mandated masks this school year.

During our recent vacation in Jacksonville, Florida, I asked my nieces Reanna Kayla and Jianna Camille, both high school students, if they are required to wear masks in school.

They answered, “Yes.” Their high school requires the students to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

In Florida, two different lawsuits seek to overturn the governor’s ban on school mask requirements. They claim that the Florida Constitution guarantees a safe school environment and grants local governments the authority to govern schools.

In Texas where the governor is against the mask mandate just like Florida, most school districts have mandated masks, according to a list – maintained by Attorney General Ken Paxton – of school systems that are “not in compliance” with an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Even after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning school mask mandates, local officials in several school districts adopted policies that required students to wear masks.

In response to the Florida and Texas governors that prohibit mask mandates in schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reminded both state governors that federal CDC guidance recommends students to wear masks.

Cardona also said that the Biden administration would closely monitor whether states were meeting the requirements for federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The law requires “states to adhere to CDC guidance, including implementing mitigation strategies such as contact tracing or mask requirements, including implementing mitigation strategies, such as contact tracing or mask requirements, to receive the federal money, the act provides.

To ensure Cardona’s letters to the governors, President Joe Biden followed up with a phone call of support to one of the superintendents who adopted mask mandates in violation of his governor’s executive order.

Measures to keep the student safe are in place and both federal and local education officials are working towards implementing such measures.

So, are our students safe?

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

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