School Report Card: Colleges have mixed COVID-19 vaccination policies and a district extends school for another month

Korin Miller
·7-min read
Black man wearing homemade facemask  He is standing at a distance from the other players on a Basketball court.
Youth sports are connected to COVID-19 outbreaks in California. Here, teens are pictured wearing masks and playing basketball. (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.

Colleges have mixed policies on requiring COVID-19 vaccines

Colleges and universities across the country are taking very different stances on COVID-19 vaccine requirements. As vaccine eligibility opens to all adults in the U.S., more colleges, including Princeton, NYU, Emory and Columbia, say they'll require students on campus to be vaccinated against the virus before the fall semester. Atlanta's historically Black colleges and universities — Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College — also said in a joint statement that they would require students to be vaccinated. 

California's public university system, the nation's largest, which includes University of California and California State University campuses, said Thursday that it will ask that students be vaccinated before returning in the fall. However, unlike private universities and colleges, public institutions say they cannot require vaccines under the current FDA emergency-use authorization. California and other states are hoping that the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine will receive full FDA approval by the start of the fall semester in order to mandate vaccines.

Similarly, Louisiana State University said they can't demand students get jabbed, but officials announced this week that they "strongly encourage all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated." 

However, the University of Kentucky also shared that neither faculty nor students are required to get the COVID-19 vaccine "at this time." University officials said that their goal "is to invite as many individuals who would like to be vaccinated to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible." But, they said, students and staff can "decline a vaccination." 

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that schools may simply be doing what they think their students, staff and families prefer. Vaccination policies are "currently a reflection of what [university officials] believe will be palatable," he says.

Dr. Lawrence C. Kleinman, chief of the Division of Population Health, Quality and Implementation Science at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that requiring students and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 "makes a lot of sense." But, he says, "there are different values in our pluralistic culture, including liberty and freedom of choice. That's what you're seeing play out." 

Adalja anticipates college vaccine requirements will change over time, though. "As the vaccines are granted full FDA licensure, I suspect [vaccination requirements] will become much more common nationwide," he says. 

A school district in Illinois is extending school by a month

Illinois's East St. Louis school district plans to extend its school year by about a month to make up for lost days due to the pandemic. The district issued a memorandum this week that will push the end of the school year from May 26 to June 29.

The extended school year is voluntary for union members who have contracts for less than 12 months. District employees and administrators who work 12-month schedules will not receive any additional compensation for the extra school time.

The extended time will be required for all students in preschool through 11th grade, as well as high school seniors who have not met their graduation requirements by May 19. The school district resumed in-person learning for preschool through 5th grade in March.

At least one other school district considered extending the school year and ultimately chose not to move forward with the plan. The board of education for New Mexico's Las Cruces Public Schools voted against the idea this week after hearing pleas from teachers opposed to it. "I strenuously object to an extended school year," one teacher said during the school board meeting. "We're wiped out."

Kleinman says that extending the school year "makes sense" for some districts. "Learning has been disrupted a lot over the past year," he notes. "My expectation and my hope is that we'll see a lot of innovation to figure out how to support catching up — not only immediately, but over time — to make sure there isn't a lifelong learning loss." 

But Dr. Daniel S. Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that teachers and students need a break. "Kids and teachers have already been doing school," he says. "Having them continue isn't fair to them or their teachers."

Chicago public schools had their first day of in-person learning in 13 months

After more than a year of remote learning, Chicago Public Schools welcomed high schoolers back for in-person learning. The district brought students in elementary and middle school back into school buildings in March.

Chicago Public Schools celebrated the moment with a blog post, writing, "too many of our high school students reported feeling bored, isolated, frustrated and unmotivated and they needed an in-person learning option."

The move back to in-person learning is the result of "months of preparations" to make "the safest possible learning environments," the post reads. The city of Chicago reported 217 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, but surrounding suburban schools have seen outbreaks. More than 700 students and staff in the suburban Naperville 203 School District are in quarantine after COVID-19 exposures, and about 155 students in Chicago-area John Hersey High School are in quarantine after being exposed to 12 different COVID-19 cases in the school.  

Ganjian says it's important for students to be in classrooms whenever possible. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strongly that kids learn in person because they learn better," he says. "The virus is not spread as fast in a school setting as it is [outside of school grounds] if the school is following precautions of the local health department. We do encourage in-person learning."

But Kleinman says he "cringes" when he thinks about schools opening up for the month or so left in the academic year. "Allowing children to have more normal interaction is important, but it becomes a risk-benefit ratio," he says. "If schools are able to do mitigations and they feel it will benefit the school in the fall, those are reasons that may be compelling to open. But it needs to be done with an appreciation of local context. If there is a huge surge in a given area, it may not be the time and place to be doing it."

Los Angeles has 5 COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, all linked to youth sports

Public health officials in Los Angeles announced in a briefing on Sunday that there are five "active outbreaks" of COVID-19 in local schools — three in Santa Clarita and one each in Redondo Beach and Agoura Hills. 

All of the outbreaks "are associated with participation in youth sports," Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis said during the briefing. The affected sports include soccer, basketball, baseball and dance. "We're looking hard at the current guidance for youth sports and may be making additional recommendations later this week to mitigate the increases we're seeing in transmission," Solis said.

Youth sports come with risk of COVID-19 spread, and "everything becomes a risk-benefit," Kleinman says. But, he says, if school districts see an increase in infections tied to sports, "they ought to think about how to do things differently and maybe even to decide that a given sport can't be done safely."

"Specifics matter," Kleinman says. "It's hard to create general rules other than to think about appropriate mitigation techniques and how they apply for each sport."

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