Minn. school district extends winter break over staffing issues, Tenn. universities can no longer require masks or COVID-19 vaccinations

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A family checks in on a tablet for self-administered COVID-19 saliva tests at a testing site.
A family checks in for COVID-19 saliva tests. (Reuters/Bing Guan)

Students are back in 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.

Minnesota school district extends its winter break to 2 weeks over COVID staffing issues

Minnesota's St. Paul School District extended its upcoming winter break to a full two weeks because of COVID-19 staffing challenges. Superintendent Joe Gothard explained the reasoning behind the decision during a school board meeting on Monday.

Gothard pointed out that, on one recent Friday, there were 300 absences among district staff, and school officials could find substitutes for only less than half of them. The longer break will give students off on Monday, Dec. 20, and Tuesday, Dec. 21.

"Those extra two days of break [are] just one way we can support what's happening in the building," Gothard said.

But a message on the district's Facebook page said that the extra days off were for students too. "This change is being made in an effort to acknowledge the stress and challenges students, families and staff are facing due to the pandemic," it read. "The district wants to give students, school staff and their families a longer break. We also encourage everyone to use this time to get vaccinated or get your booster shot if you are eligible."

The district is offering limited spots at a local child care facility for parents who need accommodations for their children on those days.

Reactions in the comments were mixed. "SPPS is doing a great job. Thanks for keeping students and staff safe — and thinking about their mental health too!" one person wrote. "This is not helpful for families. I wish the administration and school board could be honest about the purpose of this decision," another said.

Experts say it's likely these kinds of COVID-related staffing issues will continue throughout the winter.

"COVID cases are going to accelerate, and because of isolation requirements, it is going to be disruptive and cause staffing issues for all sorts of organizations," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life.

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, agreed. "Schools are going to have continued issues at least between now and January," he told Yahoo Life. "I expect we're going to have a significant community burden of disease, independent of what happens with Omicron. With Delta, we still have our hands full."

But clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, told Yahoo Life that the extra time off will be good for students' mental health. "More time off for students is only a positive boost to their mental health," he said. "A day off for a student in any form, at any time is like winning the lottery for them — an extra holiday gift."

Researchers in Texas find an effective way to decontaminate your mask at home

Researchers at Rice University and University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), Galveston, have discovered a secret for decontaminating disposable face masks: Put them in an oven heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, found that this move killed more than 99.9 percent of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses that could be lurking on face masks.

But infectious disease experts say this trick is somewhat unnecessary now. "This was really important about a year ago when masks were in relatively short supply," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "But I really think this may be misplaced at the present time. You can go to any pharmacy now and buy a package of disposable surgical masks. I’m not so sure we need this."

Adalja agreed. "Masks are plentiful at this point, so I’m not sure that there's much value to doing this," he said. "There are protocols for reusing N95 masks ... I don't think that this is going to have a strong need in the current environment."

Russo has concerns that sticking your mask in the oven could potentially compromise its integrity. Instead, he suggested a different hack that he uses for his own disposable masks: Have several masks that you rotate throughout the week. Once you've used a mask, put it in a sandwich baggie, leaving it open to let out moisture. "The half-life of the virus on something like a mask is only a day or two," he explained. "Even if your mask is contaminated, if you let it sit for a few days, there will be no viable virus on the outside after a few days."

Michigan schools close to deep clean for COVID-19

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is the largest school district in Michigan, has introduced online learning for Fridays in the month of December. "Though the District's COVID rates are significantly below the city and state, this approach will allow more time for classroom disinfection and contact tracing during the holiday season, when spread may increase," the district's website said.

Michigan is currently in the middle of a COVID-19 surge, with 16,530 new cases reported on Tuesday and Wednesday, per state data. Detroit saw 107 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.

Online learning days start today and will happen again on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17. A representative for the Detroit Public Schools Community District did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

While deep cleaning and disinfection was a big thing early in the pandemic when it wasn't entirely clear how COVID-19 spread, infectious disease experts say it's really not necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

"Decontaminating high-touch areas on a regular basis is reasonable, but, at the end of the day, if you were going to pick ways to fight COVID-19, the most important mitigation measures will be some combo of mask use and ventilation," Russo said. "Cleaning has a role but probably a distant third."

Schaffner agreed. "That’s really putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable," he said. "We have demonstrated pretty well that the inanimate environment plays a small role in spread."

Some Ivy League schools ask students and faculty to limit social gatherings

Some universities have asked students and staff to limit social gatherings in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, officials from the University of Pennsylvania requested that all student organizations postpone social events over concerns about the Omicron COVID-19 variant and a rise in the campus positivity rate. "Together, we have the ability to make thoughtful choices as we head into the final weeks of the semester and into a much-deserved winter break," the announcement read. "The decisions we make today can help us avoid outcomes such as having to quarantine due to exposure, delaying or limiting travel during the break and disrupting our end of semester academic activities." Last week, the school reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 out of 9,369 people tested.

Princeton University canceled or postponed "large-scale indoor undergraduate student social gatherings" of more than 75 people. Indoor student undergraduate organization social gatherings of 20 to 75 students must be registered with school officials in advance and have student monitors on hand to ensure people are in compliance with school masking and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

On Saturday, Princeton increased its campus risk status to "Moderate to High" due to a surge in cases in undergraduate students. The university detected 39 new cases out of 10,537 COVID-19 tests administered last week. Last week's 0.37 percent positivity rate is a big jump from the previous week's 0.15 percent.

Limiting social gatherings "will reduce the risk of transmission," Schaffner said, adding, "I think they're trying to get away from fraternity parties where people tend to take their masks off."

"Most social gatherings involve food and drink, and masks are going to be down," Russo said. "Those will pose high-risk situations."

But Adalja pointed out that both campuses have high vaccination rates, noting that the moves seem overly stringent. Both the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton have a 99 percent vaccination rate among undergraduate students. "There's always going to be a non-zero COVID risk," he said. "And, if you have vaccinated individuals gathering, the risk of a severe outcome is extremely low."

Many Tennessee universities no longer require masking or COVID-19 vaccination

The University of Tennessee, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and other public colleges in the state will no longer require that students and staff wear masks or be vaccinated against COVID-19, following a series of legal moves.

The university was originally required to mandate masks for students and staff and vaccines for staff under President Biden's Executive Order 14042. That order was challenged by a law signed by Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee that banned many COVID-19 mandates.

A federal judge applied an injunction this week on Biden's order, causing the university to need to follow Tennessee law. Just 51 percent of people in the state of Tennessee are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to government data.

The Tennessee Comptroller's Office has also removed the previously existing ability for entities in Tennessee (including schools) to retain their mask or vaccine mandates. "It is important to note that these exemptions may be reinstated if the injunctions are lifted, and it is legally permissible," a news release from the Comptroller's Office said.

"With the preliminary injunction in place, the university must now comply with Tennessee law, which prohibits state institutions like UT Knoxville from requiring masks or COVID-19 vaccinations," Chancellor Donde Powman said in a letter to students and staff. "As a result, all mask and vaccine requirements on our campus have been lifted. We ask that members of the campus community make whatever personal choices they think are best with respect to vaccines and masks while being considerate of the choices, health conditions, and requests of others."

The University of Tennessee also announced this week that its mask and vaccine mandate had been lifted. "As new strains of COVID-19 continue to appear, I strongly urge all UT employees who have not been vaccinated to once again consider getting vaccinated," University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd wrote.

Technically, the order applies to all Tennessee public universities.

Schaffner, who works for a private Tennessee university, said he's "very distressed" by the news. "It's a giant step back. It's anti-public health," he said. "It's sad."

Russo called the removal of the mandates "unfortunate." He added, "we're not done with this pandemic, particularly if you're unvaccinated — and a significant number of individuals in the state of Tennessee are unvaccinated."

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