Government resources are drying up, vaccine mandates and COVID-19 protocols are being lifted, and students and educators say they feel they’re being left behind.
This three-part series takes a closer look at how teachers, students, and parents are coping with fear and uncertainty as government priorities shift.
The California Department of Public Health ended the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency on Feb. 28, effectively ending the plan to add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of inoculations students are required to have to attend school in person. Despite being effective at protecting people from the virus, as of April 3, masks are also no longer required in indoor high-risk and health care settings. With COVID-19 protocols gone and schools no longer enforcing policies that could protect people from the virus, many teachers and parents fear the risk of getting COVID-19 and being left with lifelong health conditions.
“Vaccination is the only rational and safe response to the COVID pandemic,” said Mark Airgood, a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. “No one is claiming that COVID is gone.”
As of April 12, the test positivity rate in California is at 5.1% with a daily average of 1,343 cases. But now that testing centers and treatment sites are closing across the state and people are self-testing without reporting that data to health officials, getting an accurate number is challenging.
“It’s really dangerous for kids that the vaccine mandate is getting ready to drop,” said epidemiologist Gabrielle Perry. “If we’re talking about immunocompromised patients and children, the most common ailment they’re suffering from is like a chronic, respiratory ailment. They have asthma, they have bronchitis, they have something affecting their respiratory system if they are immunocompromised. Those kids are really kind of in the thick of it.”
Across the country, schools are still experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. As of March 2022, 28 states and the District of Columbia were still reporting COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools, but it is unclear how many are still tracking and reporting outbreaks. The lack of data and politicization of COVID-19 data have led to holes in robustly understanding the spread of the disease and the impact on educators and students. In 2020, child care workers were more likely than the average American to die of COVID-19. Studies have also shown that the rate of COVID-19 infections rose when mask mandates were dropped and that consistent masking in schools is recommended to prevent education inequities from persisting.
“For the moment, it seems that it’s less fatal and the cases have been more mild, which is a good thing,” Airgood said. “But there’s no guarantee that we don’t get another strain that is much more dangerous.”
Perry’s concerns include the potential for students and educators to develop long COVID. These symptoms include tiredness or fatigue that interferes with daily life, fever, respiratory or heart problems, and coughing, among many others. But tracking long COVID is difficult. Recent data shows that the percentage of people with long COVID is declining, but Perry says tracking the data is unreliable due to many factors. First, people may not be testing for COVID-19 to begin with; secondly, their doctor may not correctly diagnose their long COVID symptoms.
“There’s been a hesitancy in the medical community to call a spade a spade and call long COVID what it is,” Perry said. “I don’t know how that’s going to play out in kids … I can say that the increase in the incidence of long COVID—even that data is skewed because those people are using qualitative evidence and because the symptoms are so ambiguous. Some people are just kind of being told, ‘OK, well, have you tried losing weight? Have you tried changing your diet?’”
Airgood has been teaching for more than 30 years. Two years ago, when schools returned to in-person instruction, Airgood decided to continue teaching virtually out of fear of being vulnerable to health complications from the virus. Airgood said there was initially a mask mandate and a protocol to inform parents if there was a COVID-19 outbreak in the schools. Neither of those measures are currently in place.
“Now, we’re just ignoring that there is even such a thing as a COVID pandemic at this point,” Airgood said. “It’s so backward in terms of public health policy. It’s so dangerous. In the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen the weakening and erosion of any meaningful public health policy.”
The push to prioritize economic stability over widespread mitigation efforts has been encouraged across party lines since the country went into lockdown in March 2020. California was the first state to issue stay-at-home orders for its 40 million residents, and it was one of the strictest states when it came to COVID-19 policies. According to Perry, a larger concern is that vaccine rates are low—with only 16.7% of the population 5 years or older receiving the bivalent booster—and that few people are still masking across the country.
Even worse, when vaccine mandates drop, that also impacts the ability to get a vaccine. A limited number of boosters are currently available and approved across the country. Perry’s 72-year-old mother is immunocompromised and tried to get the next booster, but she was turned away at both CVS and Walgreens because there was a limit on the number of available boosters.
“Dropping vaccine mandates is going to affect how everybody is able to get vaccinated,” Perry said. “As time wanes on, especially as we head toward this winter and this fall where flu season kicks up, I think that’s when we’re probably going to start seeing the ramifications of that.”
The aftermath has caused both conservatives and liberals across the country to push for policies that don’t take into account the spread of the virus and how it might impact immunocompromised communities.
“The vaccine mandate being dropped is an entirely different ballgame,” Perry said. “A lot of the political conversation around it was, ‘Well masks don’t work, so we shouldn’t be bothered. Oh, vaccines don’t protect everybody, we shouldn’t even bother.’ When the nature of public health is putting multiple things in place in tandem as mitigation measures. Slowly we’ve seen all of our barriers against this disease falter willingly.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it a mission to penalize any type of vaccine mandates whatsoever. In June 2022, he threatened to fine the U.S. Special Olympics Games $27.5 million if they had a COVID-19 vaccination requirement when they were hosted in Orlando. The Florida Department of Health sent a notice to the Special Olympics International threatening to fine them for 5,500 violations of the state’s vaccine mandate prohibition. Other states like Georgia and Arkansas have followed suit by signing laws that prohibit vaccine mandates for education or private businesses.
“The policy is to ignore things,” Airgood said. “There’s nothing coming out of anybody, the CDC, anyone, that’s actually guiding an aggressive public health policy.”
Airgood, who is also an organizer with BAMN, a youth-led civil rights and immigrant rights organization committed to building a new civil rights movement, has wanted to get a second booster of the COVID-19 vaccine, but they are not available yet, unlike in other countries. Through BAMN, which stands for “By Any Means Necessary,” organizers have held press conferences, car caravans, and spoken out against dropping the vaccine mandate and social distancing policies. Airgood said one of their biggest victories in Oakland, California, has been maintaining a fully virtual K-12 program, which now has 800 students.
“This is not the end of the issue because COVID continues,” Airgood said. “If there’s going to be another virus, unfortunately, we have weaker public policy now than ever.”
The lack of COVID-19 protocols has set an alarming precedent for how future outbreaks will be handled and how the public should respect previous vaccine requirements, namely the pediatric measles vaccination, for which declining vaccine coverage has increased the risk of outbreaks.
“I think that we’re in a new era where I, as a health care professional, don’t even know what’s next,” Perry said. “Even as we watch our public health leaders in this country talk about the importance of the lessons that we’ve essentially learned from this pandemic, you see in real time, the goalposts move. But public health does not function the same way medicine does. Medicine is where you treat the symptoms. Public health is about all of us. It’s about the collective.”
Airgood said folks should continue advocating for online instructional options and protections for health as part of a larger civil rights movement.