Central New York school districts face pressing Covid-related questions as fall approaches, without any answers yet.
Just how close will we be to normal?
Will children be required to wear masks in classrooms? For all grades? For teachers?
Now that Covid-19 vaccines are approved for anyone aged 12 and up, will school districts require students and employees to get them? What does the Delta variant mean for schools?
Will schools still offer remote classes? If so, what will that look like?
These are huge questions. Parents, students and district employees have strongly held opinions that are often in conflict. The answers rely on medical, legal, financial, social and political issues that can change.
And, they involve multiple jurisdictions setting rules. The state, county health officials and school districts will weigh in. So will parents.
Schools are six weeks from opening day.
Syracuse.com|The Post Standard talked to public health and education experts about what Covid-related issues schools face, what may happen and who will decide.
When school ended, in June masks were still mandatory for everyone inside school buildings but not outside. Will that change this fall, and who will decide?
Experts, along with Onondaga County officials, say it will be up to New York state. The health department will likely issue guidelines, but when is a big unknown. Sooner is better than later, says Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
The state released its school health rules last year in a 145-page document July 17, 2020.
The CDC now recommends children aged 2 and older wear masks when indoors if not fully vaccinated. If vaccinated, kids in schools should not have to wear masks, according to the CDC. Students aged 12 and younger can’t get vaccinated yet, so they would have to wear masks inside schools.
In contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends masks for all students and staff, whether vaccinated or not.
Health experts agree masks likely will be mandatory in elementary schools where younger students — those under 12 — can’t get the Covid-19 vaccine yet. Requiring masks for younger kids makes sense, said David Larsen, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Syracuse University.
Even though Covid doesn’t typically create serious illness in children, children can suffer long-term effects, he said. He said about 40 percent of kids continue to experience Covid-related symptoms for about 60 days after the illness.
With the contagious Covid-19 Delta variant posing a real threat, it’s crucial to protect younger kids who can’t get the vaccine, said Cornell University’s Nellie Brown, director of workplace health and safety programs at the Worker Institute.
In high schools, where students are old enough to be eligible for vaccines, it’s expected masks will be voluntary. Staff at all levels who are vaccinated won’t have to wear masks, although employees don’t have to prove vaccination status at this time.
But what about middle schools where some students are eligible for vaccines and others aren’t?
“That’s really challenging,’’ said Dr. Jana Shaw, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. She said the state health department will have to issue rules on this.
SU’s Larsen said it’s important that schools don’t create a mask vs. unmasked culture. That means kids who are vaccinated wouldn’t wear masks, while those in lower grades who can’t get vaccinated yet would have to wear them. “That’s stigmatizing and demeaning,’’ he said.
If you’re at a school where everyone is eligible for the vaccine, “drop the masks, and if someone isn’t eligible it’s on them,’’ Larsen said.
Jordan-Elbridge Superintendent James Froio said he’s waiting for guidance from the state on masks before making decisions.
Mike Henesey, speaking for the Syracuse City School District, said the district won’t conduct any interviews with reporters on the policies for the coming year “until guidance is released and decisions are made.”
In New York state, 59.4% of the population is fully vaccinated as of July 21, according to the state’s Covid vaccine tracker.
State University of New York colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated to attend this fall, as are many private colleges. But Lowry of NYCOSS says he’s not aware of any school districts in New York that have taken that step.
“I haven’t heard of it being considered in schools,’’ Lowry said. “I think there is recognition there would be community opposition, and there’s some resistance to schools promoting vaccinations.”
Part of that is because of the vaccine’s emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; it hasn’t received full approval. Emergency authorization use includes language that implies it could be refused. But full approval at least for Pfizer could come this fall, said Upstate’s Shaw. That could change things.
Pfizer/Biotech, the only drug manufacturer with a Covid-19 vaccine now approved for ages 12 through 17 in the U.S., announced in May it is asking for emergency use authorization from the federal government for younger children.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo could require vaccines for students and staff once the vaccines get full approval. It’s not clear if he would do that, health experts say. They hope so.
Why the hesitation?
“It’s become so politicized,’’ said Cornell’s Brown. “I think everyone is afraid of pushback, so instead they are offering incentives for vaccines instead.”
Shaw agrees. “There is this huge divide,’’ she said. “Politics are eroding public health, and public officials are making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of the public. This undermines our efforts to end the pandemic.”
All three agree it makes sense to mandate vaccines for students and staff once there is full FDA approval for the vaccine. Public school students have to provide proof of shots for diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella; hepatitis B, chickenpox and, for older kids, meningococcal.
Shaw said it makes sense to mandate vaccines, especially in schools where groups of kids congregate and spread infections.
“Why should those in schools not have to disclose if they don’t get the vaccine, and then threaten us all?’’ she said.
SU’s Larsen also said schools should drop the daily temperature checks and screenings by each child and teacher that continued through June. He said this is a waste of resources; kids get fevers and illnesses that aren’t Covid.
Elementary schools may keep them. “They’re not a very sensitive tool, but we used it because we had nothing else,’’ Shaw said.
Most schools brought students back to in-person school at least four days a week in the final months of school. Some students stuck with remote learning, but the majority returned to the classrooms.
School districts want to downsize remote learning if they offer it. That partially will be up to Cuomo, who has said he will announce a statewide policy.
What’s clear is that remote learning won’t look the same as it did during the worst of the pandemic. It’s likely an outside vendor such as BOCES would handle distance learning for districts, taking many schools’ kids whose parents think they are at risk for Covid.
What will demand be like? Jordan-Elbridge’s Froio said he hasn’t had any requests for remote learning yet but that could change.
Cornell’s Brown believes schools will continue to offer a scaled-down remote option for immunocompromised kids. Others will be back in school, she said.
Remote learning may come in handy, however, if there is a Covid outbreak in the schools and for snow days, Larsen said.
Experts agree this is a real threat to in-person learning, particularly in elementary schools and if older kids aren’t vaccinated. It could mean quarantines again, and shifts back to remote learning.
The Delta variant is more transmissible and is now the dominant strain in the U.S., Larsen said. “Children with the Delta variant have higher virus loads, and that could be an issue,’’ he said.
Vaccinations are the answer, he said.
“There is an end in sight to the pandemic,’’ Larsen said. “We’re not trying to eliminate it, just control it.”
If you have any questions about the upcoming school year, please contact Elizabeth Doran at 315-470-3012 or email email@example.com.