Parents threaten to pull students from Iowa school district over new mask mandate, Harvard Business School goes remote amid rise in COVID cases

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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.

Families threaten to unenroll students from Iowa school district over new mask mandate

Some families in Iowa's Ankeny Community School District are threatening to temporarily remove their students from school over a new mask mandate. The district's school board voted 5-2 to require all students and staff to wear masks in school on Sept. 21. This comes after a judge issued a temporary restraining order on Sept. 13 on a state law that banned school districts from requiring masks in schools.

Parents who are angry that their children will have to wear masks in schools have threatened to unenroll their kids before the state counts the number of students in schools on Friday. They then plan to reenroll their children on Oct. 2. The number of students in each district helps to dictate funding for the following school year. By having fewer children enrolled during the student count, the district would theoretically receive less funding.

Comments on a Facebook post about the Ankeny Community School District board meeting were mostly supportive of the mask mandate, but there was some dissent, and at least one parent threatened to unenroll his child. "Well, this is how you fight back. Keep every student home on October 4 — that is the certified enrollment date. Each district earns $7,048 per student in attendance! If they want to hurt our kids and their civil liberties, let them feel it where it counts. $$$$$," one person wrote. Others criticized the commenter. "That is the most idiotic response," one person said. "Not providing your child or children with the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe school district. I guess home schooling it is…"

District parent Jeff Fahrmann told the board during the Sept. 21 meeting he would unenroll his three children if the board passed the mandate.

"I have personally confirmed 66 students that will be unenrolled through a personal survey,” he said, the Des Moines Register reported. "We unenrolled our kids last year due to the hybrid part-time instruction decision and plan to do this again if you mandate masks without reasonable exemptions."

It's unclear how many families actually unenrolled their students, or if any students at all were unenrolled. Jamie Loggins-Evans, a communications consultant for the Ankeny Community School District, tells Yahoo Life that there's a natural fluctuation in enrollment numbers before the school count. "The week or so before the Certified Enrollment count is due, most school districts see a fluctuation in numbers (both up and down) as we work to make sure every student is accounted for in the correct district," she says. "Since the approval of our updated Return to Learn plan, we have not noticed any significant changes in the number of requests for students to transfer or withdraw their enrollment."

Loggins-Evans says that the district recognizes "that parents and guardians have the right to unenroll their student(s) from the district at any time for any reason," adding, "we do ask that parents and guardians go through the proper channels to request their students unenrollment."

Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life the threats are "very unfortunate."

"The main responsibility of a parent is to keep their child safe," he said. "The pandemic isn't a game for people to be sending messages or trying to advance some kind of agenda they have. Parents who oppose mandatory masks are being selfish and irresponsible and putting the health of their child at risk."

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, agrees. "These parents aren't thinking of the best interests of their children," he tells Yahoo Life.

Harvard Business School suspends most in-person classes over breakthrough COVID cases

Harvard Business School has temporarily shifted to remote learning after an increase in breakthrough COVID-19 cases among business school students. 

First-year and some second-year students at the prestigious school started remote learning on Monday and are scheduled to resume in-person classes on Monday, Mark Cautela, head of communications at Harvard Business School, tells Yahoo Life. According to school data, 96 percent of Harvard employees and 95 percent of students are vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Harvard Business School has temporarily shifted to remote learning after an increase in breakthrough COVID-19 cases among its students. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Harvard Business School has temporarily shifted to remote learning after an increase in breakthrough COVID-19 cases among its students. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The school has seen a modest recent increase in COVID-19 cases, with graduate students making up the bulk of them, data shows. On Monday, for example, 13 graduate students tested positive for COVID-19, compared with one undergraduate student and one staff member.

"In recent days, we've seen a steady rise in breakthrough infections among our student population, despite high vaccination rates and frequent testing," Cautela says. "Contact tracers who have worked with positive cases highlight that transmission is not occurring in classrooms or other academic settings on campus. Nor is it occurring among individuals who are masked."

Harvard Business School has also requested that all students "eliminate unmasked indoor activities," limit in-person interactions with people outside their household, move all group gatherings online and cancel group travel, Cautela says. The school has also increased the frequency of testing students to three times a week and is creating a new daily email to students to keep them posted on the situation. 

Infectious disease experts applaud the school's move. "The easiest and safest course of action with an outbreak is to go ahead and shut everything down until isolation and/or quarantine periods are done so they can get back on track while increasing testing," Russo says. "They're taking the safest and most conservative course of action to nip this in the bud and put an end to it."

While breakthrough cases aren't common overall, wearing a mask indoors will help lower your risk, Watkins says. "Colleges can't regulate whether or not students wear masks when not in class," he says. "It is likely that breakthrough cases occurred from students getting infected by not wearing masks somewhere else."

Virginia plans to offer the COVID-19 vaccine in public schools

Virginia officials have announced plans to offer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to public school students once the vaccine is authorized by the FDA for children ages 5 and up. The news came in a Monday press briefing from Gov. Ralph Northam. 

Details were scarce, but Northam said the state's Department of Health is working with public schools to offer the vaccines to students as soon as they are available. As of now, Pfizer has submitted initial data from its clinical trials in younger children to the FDA but has not formally applied for an emergency-use authorization (EUA) in children ages 5 to 11.

"We want to make sure this is as easy on parents and children as possible," Northam said. The governor's office did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for more details. 

The state of Virginia is coming down from its most recent wave of COVID-19 cases, which peaked in early September. On Thursday, there were 3,130 new cases reported in Virginia, according to state data

Watkins calls the plan to offer COVID-19 vaccines to younger students in school "great," adding, "anything that increases access to the vaccine should be encouraged." Russo agrees. "I love it," he says. However, he notes that the actual process of making this happen could be logistically difficult, given that parents will need to give informed consent.

"I suspect it won’t go quite that smoothly but love the idea," he says. "We've underestimated access for families — and the lack of easy access has dissuaded some. This is a practical means to exclude that issue."

CDC study: Schools without mask mandates are more likely to have outbreaks

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that COVID-19 outbreaks are more common in schools that don't have mask mandates. 

The study analyzed data from 1,020 public schools in Arizona's Maricopa and Pima counties between the start of the school year in late July and mid-August. Researchers discovered that schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have school outbreaks than those where masks were required. 

An instructional assistant helps a student as in-person learning resumes with restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Wilson Primary School in Phoenix. (Reuters/Cheney Orr)
An instructional assistant helps a student as in-person learning resumes with restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Wilson Primary School in Phoenix. (Reuters/Cheney Orr)

"Lapses in universal masking contribute to COVID-19 outbreaks in school settings," the researchers concluded. "Given the high transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, universal masking, in addition to vaccination of all eligible students, staff members, and faculty and implementation of other prevention measures, remains essential to COVID-19 prevention in K–12 settings."

Russo is not shocked by the findings. "Masks are the most important mitigation measure to prevent infections," he says. "When you don’t use masks, you will have more cases." Watkins notes that mask mandates "also allow other school-related activities — homecoming, sports — to continue."

Pennsylvania school district will discipline students who violate mask mandate

Bald Eagle Area School district in Wingate, Pa., announced this week that it will begin disciplining students who refuse to comply with the district's mask mandate. 

Superintendent Scott V. Graham said in a message to the district on Tuesday that the school system "did not want to punish students who did not wear a mask," adding that he and school board members "were optimistic that most students would wear masks and we could work with parents and students who still did not."

However, Graham said, 274 students in the district's middle and high schools did not wear a mask on Monday alone. "Many of the elementary schools are experiencing high numbers as well," he continued. "At the same time, we are having to continue to quarantine students, some for the third time, because they were close contacts and one or both the COVID positive student and the students being quarantined were not wearing a mask."

As a result, starting Wednesday, the district would enforce "disciplinary action according to district policy" for students who do not wear a proper face mask or face shield, or do not have a doctor's note exempting them from wearing a mask, Graham said. "By doing this, we keep schools open, significantly reduce the number of students quarantined and keep sports and extracurricular activities going," he said. "The Board and I no longer wish to debate whether masks work or the legality of the mandate. The legislature has had ample opportunity to take action and they have not. The courts have not decided that the mandate is illegal."

Graham also noted that students will not need to quarantine after an exposure if they wear a face mask or face shield and are at least three feet away from a COVID-positive person. He also pointed out that there are mask breaks for middle and high school students every period and that elementary school students get a 40-minute mask break. "The Board, administration and I are hopeful that we can get back to focusing on what is most important, student learning," Graham said.

Graham did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment. The district reported five new COVID-19 cases in schools on Tuesday.

"It's unfortunate that this is necessary," Russo says. "The honor system did not get it done, as we’ve seen repeatedly during this pandemic. Sometimes more dramatic measures are necessary to protect students and staff." Overall, Russo says, "this is the right thing to do."

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