School Report Card: SC governor and department of education at odds over masks in schools, public schools are mixed on mandating vaccines

·8-min read
Students in a manufacturing class at school wearing facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic - education concepts
Students wearing masks in school classrooms will soon be optional in South Carolina thanks to an executive order by governor — something the department of education is not thrilled about. (Photo: Getty Images)

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

South Carolina's Department of Education publicly battles with governor over mask mandates

Officials from South Carolina's Department of Education are speaking out after Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order that said parents can choose whether their children should wear masks to public school or not. Previously, the Department of Education required that masks be worn in school.

"We believe the decision to do this and how the executive order was carried out was unnecessary and created confusion and undue burden with just a few weeks of school left," Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the South Carolina Department of Education, tells Yahoo Life. 

Health officials in the state issued a form on Wednesday that would allow parents to have their children go without masks in schools. But the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) also noted in the form that both the DHEC and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the use of face coverings to lower the risk of COVID-19. 

"The timing of the governor’s executive order and the way it was handed down created chaos," Brown says. "We have parents and schools who are for it and also against it. It has created even more division."

The Department of Education still requires face coverings on school buses, "but, due to the governor’s executive order, they are no longer required in schools," Brown says. He adds, "We did not agree with his decision to do this with just a few weeks of school left."

Ohio's Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Wednesday that the state will offer several full, four-year college scholarships to young people who get vaccinated, for any of its state universitities. Here, graduate is seen inside Ohio Stadium at Ohio State University on May 9. (Photo: REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)
Ohio's Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Wednesday that the state will offer several full, four-year college scholarships to young people who get vaccinated, for any of its state universitities. Here, graduate is seen inside Ohio Stadium at Ohio State University on May 9. (Photo: REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)

Experts say there may be more changes to in-school mask mandates in the future. "Everyone is going to be on different timelines, and there will probably be different policies until cases come down," Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "There is not going to be one uniform point where mask mandates in schools will disappear."

Even though COVID-19 cases are falling across the country, masks are still important to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "If you have people indoors who are unmasked, they pose a risk to themselves and to others," Russo says. "They should wear masks."

State of Ohio and Rowan University offer education incentives to encourage vaccination

Ohio's Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Wednesday that the state will offer several full, four-year college scholarships to young people who get vaccinated.

"On May 18, an electronic portal will be opened up for young people who have been vaccinated to be able to register. We will do this every Wednesday, for five straight Wednesdays — each time randomly selecting one student to receive the full, four-year scholarship," DeWine wrote on Twitter. The scholarships will be for "any of Ohio's state colleges and universities" and will cover "full tuition, room and board, and books," DeWine said.

The announcement comes just days after New Jersey's Rowan University announced that it will offer tuition incentives for students who are vaccinated. The school will give a $500 tuition credit for the fall semester to full-time students who show proof of vaccination before Aug. 7, 2021, and an additional $500 credit toward housing for residential students. Part-time students will receive a pro-rated credit based on the number of courses they are taking in the fall.

"We believe the path to normalcy is through widespread vaccination and we want our entire community to commit to reaching the goal of widespread vaccination," Ali A. Houshmand, president of Rowan University, said in the announcement. "If we work together, we can reach this goal and offer the Rowan University experience that we all deserve."

"These incentives could help move the needle or inspire people who have been disorganized, lazy or too busy to get vaccinated," Russo says. "These incentives might really help get them going." But, he says, it's unlikely that incentives will encourage people who are hesitant to get vaccinated or who are opposed to the idea. "A lot of these individuals have gotten their information from less-than-excellent sources like social media, and I'm not sure that incentives alone will get it done for people with misbeliefs," Russo says. 

Study: COVID-19 cases increased in Texas after kids went back to in-person learning

A new study from researchers at the University of Kentucky found that COVID-19 cases went up in Texas after students went back to classrooms.

The study tracked average weekly COVID-19 cases in the eight weeks leading up to in-person learning beginning and the eight weeks after students went back, alongside district reopening plans and cellphone data to show movement of adults. 

According to researchers, in-person learning was linked to 43,000 additional cases of the virus and 800 deaths. 

The researchers don't necessarily point the finger at COVID-19 transmission in schools, though. "Median time spent outside the home on a typical weekday increased substantially in neighborhoods with large numbers of school-age children, suggesting a return to in-person work or increased outside-of-home leisure activities among parents," they wrote.

Adalja says that it's "hard to make a correlation" between a return to in-person learning and COVID-19 cases. "There may have been other re-openings happening at the same time, especially in a place like Texas where there have been less restrictions in general," he says. Students and families may have also been mingling more outside of school at the same time, raising the risk of spread, he says. 

Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio of NYC, seen at a mobile vaccine unit, has said that the city will not mandate the COVID vaccine for its school students. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio of NYC, seen at a mobile vaccine unit, has said that the city will not mandate the COVID vaccine for its school students. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Public schools and states are mixed on whether they'll require the COVID-19 vaccine for students

Public school districts and states have given mixed responses when asked whether they'll require the COVID-19 vaccine for students.

Daniel Gutekanst, superintendent of Massachusett's Needham Public Schools, tell Yahoo Life that he will "absolutely" support a requirement for his district's students and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it is fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (vs. the current emergency authorization). While the Massachusetts Department of Health ultimately would make that decision, Gutekanst says he "eagerly awaits their guidance and direction."

"It is not possible to allow our children's education to be this disrupted," Gutekanst says. "I would encourage the Department of Public Health to mandate the vaccine as we move forward."

But Gutekanst's view isn't supported everywhere. New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that students in New York City public schools will not be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. "No. Across the board,” he said, when asked if he would mandate the vaccine in schools. “We are seeing extraordinary success right now in our schools. And this is before we’ve been able to vaccinate our kids.”

Adalja says that public schools across the country likely won't mandate the vaccine until it received a full authorization from the FDA. "You might find some private schools that will mandate it before full authorization, but most public schools will probably wait," he says. After the vaccine is authorized, he predicts that "you will see a hodgepodge, but a significant number will mandate it."

Russo says that mandating the vaccine "makes a lot of sense," noting that this would help protect children and others. "Kids are part of the transmission chain and have the potential to infect others that are higher risk," Russo says. "From a public health point of view, the safest way to go for the children and community overall is to have everyone vaccinated."

Schools host proms — but without slow dancing

Schools are finding ways to host proms, but many have tight restrictions for students, including banning slow dancing. 

DANVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/05/08: A couple wearing masks arrives at Danville Area High School's 2021 prom.
The school required attendees to wear masks and attest that they had no symptoms or exposure to anyone with COVID-19. (Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A couple is seen arriving recently at a prom in Pennsylvania. While many are back on this year, they come with restrictions, and some are even banning slow dancing. (Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New Hampshire's Manchester Central High School is holding its prom at a minor league stadium and slow dancing is forbidden, according to the Associated Press. Schools in Florida's Sarasota County are allowed to have prom, but there can be no dancing. Attendance is also limited to high school seniors. 

Some have gotten around the strict regulations, though. Students in southern New Mexico held an unsanctioned prom last month after being told they couldn't have slow dancing at their school-sanctioned event. 

"In general, people have to decide if this is a risk worth taking," Adalja says. Older teenagers can be vaccinated, which could help, he says, along with masks and having the ceremony outdoors. As for the slow dancing bans, Adalja calls them "a little bit silly," noting that "people who are slow dancing together are likely going to be hanging out together outside of prom."

Russo admits that prom is a tricky thing to pull off during a pandemic. "If we're ever going to have challenges in executing plans, prom is it," he says. 

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