School districts have adopted different approaches to addressing COVID-19 since President Joe Biden lifted the COVID-19 national emergency in April and the public health emergency declaration in May—and the responses to the recent uptick in cases show just how disparate these approaches can be.
School districts in Texas and Kentucky temporarily canceled classes in August due to high levels of COVID-19 infections. The Runge Independent School District in Texas closed for a week after the district said about 20% of its staff had active cases of COVID-19. In Kentucky, the Lee County School District and Magoffin County School District also announced temporary closures due to high levels of illness. Other school districts continue to operate with business as usual.
Doctors across the U.S. are seeing a rise in COVID-19 infections in the intensive care unit (ICU). While hospitals are not seeing the same levels of illness as prior years, immunocompromised people such as older adults, cancer patients, and people who have had transplants continue to face higher levels of hospitalization. While the vast majority of Americans have not kept up with boosters, the CDC recommends everyone age 5 and up get the new booster shot that became available earlier this month.
Ashley Weitz, a parent of a fourth-grader in Utah, transferred her child from the Salt Lake City School District (SLCSD) to the Jordan School District (JSD) after SLCSD ended the option to take classes virtually. Weitz felt that it was necessary that her child, who has asthma and hemophilia, have the option to continue virtual schooling for his health.
Enrolling at JSD has allowed Weitz’s child to have daily synchronous instruction while attending school in person two days a week for electives. Weitz has been largely happy with JSD for giving her the option to educate her child while mitigating the risk of him getting COVID-19.
At the same time, Weitz is concerned that the school district has not issued guidance on COVID-19 in a long time. While the school district would previously send reminders to parents about not sending their children to school if they were sick, Weitz has not received those kinds of instructions in more than a year. She has made the decision to start masking again due to the rise in cases and feels frustrated that it is now up to individuals to make public health decisions on their own.
“People in positions of power who may have been able to make those decisions in the past have just been so disempowered by the state, and everything has been so politicized unnecessarily that I personally have been relying on checking things like wastewater and talking to my colleagues who are in medicine about what they are seeing,” Weitz said.
While many school districts have stopped all COVID-19-related precautions, others, like Chicago Public Schools and the San Diego Unified School District, continue to track COVID-19 cases. In early September, Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Maryland announced a 10-day mask mandate in some classes and activities after multiple students tested positive. Kinterbish Junior High School in Alabama also asked students and employees to start wearing masks.
There is some debate among educational and public health professionals about whether it is necessary to temporarily close schools to protect teachers and families during a rise in COVID-19 cases. A recent study by researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital found that 70% of COVID-19 cases within households with adults and children started with a child. At the same time, school closures have had a negative impact on academic achievement and the mental health of parents, teachers, and students, especially students of color.
Teachers who spoke to Prism expressed different desires regarding how they wanted their school districts to respond to COVID-19. All of them requested anonymity for their safety. One teacher expressed frustration about the lack of information about COVID-19 spread in the district and the delay in implementing basic safety measures.
“The knowledge infrastructures around COVID-19 seem to be becoming less accessible and more difficult to make informed decisions about how to stay safe around COVID-19,” the teacher said. “What I will say is that I have never felt our district cared about COVID-19. Only this month, September 2023, did we get air filters.”
Another teacher whose district has also stopped tracking COVID-19 said he thought tracking cases had been unduly burdensome for his school district and spread inaccurate information. Stretched capacity led to numerous errors—at one point, he knew of more students with COVID-19 at his school than the district reported on their dashboard. He said it would be more helpful to him if the school district could better communicate about COVID-19-related services, such as information about boosters and locations for vaccinations and testing.
Another teacher from the same school district has been bothered by the lack of COVID-19 protocols for indoor events such as the high school prom, where organizers failed to implement simple measures such as temperature checks at the door. The school district also no longer provides COVID-19 tests to staff and students or requires them to complete a five-day isolation period if they test positive, as it did previously.
“COVID seems to be moving toward the same categorization as a common cold or virus,” she said. “Folks are asked to stay home until symptoms start to improve, and we are no longer required or expected to test. There seems to be an implied message to continue working or attending school even if you test COVID positive.”
Federal resources to schools regarding COVID-19-related issues have also slowed considerably. In the peak years of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education issued frequent guidance to schools on everything from how to find educational technology resources to how to address teacher shortages to how to plan safe transportation to and from school. The department has not released new guidance to school districts on how to address COVID-19 cases since the end of the federal emergency.
With the drying up of COVID-related emergency school funds, more school districts must face the reality of no longer being able to afford certain programs. Chatham County Schools (CCS), a school district in North Carolina, recently announced the end of its fully remote learning option for elementary and middle schoolers due to budgetary constraints.
“While the virtual academy program in K-8 has been successful for some students, we have seen a decline in enrollment over the past year,” CCS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson wrote in a letter to parents in February of this year. “Many families are more comfortable with students returning to their home base schools.”
Families that are not comfortable with the new regime around COVID-19, such as Weitz and her son, are doing their best to navigate a school system that has become increasingly difficult for immunocompromised individuals to thrive in. The post-emergency era requires more families to be cautious about what activities they attend and make decisions about their health without institutional support.
“We will be masking, we will be getting our new vaccines, we will be doing everything that we can,” said Weitz. “I just have to hope and trust that the folks who are enrolled in this virtual elementary school are informed enough and aware enough and compassionate enough to want to take care of each other, but we are not getting the guidance from the school or from the district.”