Back To School: Live Updates From K-12 to college, here's what you need to know as students head back to the classroom.
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Back To School: Live Updates

Following the news as students return to in-person learning.

According to the CDC, between March and May, 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17. Annie Otzen/Getty Images hide caption

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Annie Otzen/Getty Images

According to the CDC, between March and May, 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.

Annie Otzen/Getty Images

Most kids around the country are back in classrooms by now, but this school year isn't quite the return-to-normalcy that everyone had hoped for. Covid-19 cases are surging again, and many school districts have already closed due to outbreaks. Others are offering remote learning options. This school year is already feeling uncertain and anxiety ridden for many students.

"Teacher, kids, everybody thought we were going to come back this year and everything would be back to normal," says Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a senior vice president at Array Behavioral Care. "And now that it's not, how do we prepare kids for another potentially challenging year?"

That's a question she's been getting a lot from schools in recent weeks. So what do you do? Christian-Brathwaite and other mental health experts gave NPR some tips that parents, teachers and all adults can use to help kids cope better in these uncertain times.

1. Adults, take care of your own well being first.

"There are no healthy children without healthy adults," says Christian-Brathwaite.

It's important for adults in charge of kids to take care of their own mental health, she says, so they are able to better manage whatever comes their way.


Practice things that will support your resilience, advises child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Vera Feuer, the associate vice president for school mental health at Northwell Health.

Feuer suggests doing calming activities like yoga and meditation. In fact, any physical activity can help, she adds, like hiking, dancing or playing sports. It will help you manage your emotions better and stay calm during stressful times, she says. And in the process you can teach your kids or students these important skills, too.

"Kids and parents should understand that we all have anxiety and stress in our lives, and the goal is not to eliminate it, but to learn to manage it," adds Feuer.

Christian-Brathwaite suggests incorporating calming activities like meditation into the school day — either at the start of the day, or during transitions between classes.

"Something as simple as a regular practice of meditation or mindfulness, it decreases our stress response," she says. "It brings kids out of that fight, flight or freeze, and it brings the adults out of it as well."

2. Talk to kids about their concerns — and validate their feelings

It's important to start talking to kids about their emotions and their mental health early, and before things reach a crisis point.

Families should "provide kids with open spaces to discuss their concerns," says Feuer. "This generation is changing in terms of their view of mental health. And there is a positive shift in the stigma issue in terms of kids being more willing and able to come forward and talk about things. And really, adults need to continue to support that."

The same advice goes for schools, too, says Dena Trujillo, interim CEO of Crisis Text Line, which has created a toolkit called Mental Health School Supplies to help kids cope better during these times.

"Some of these things seem basic, but they're really important," she says.

And when kids express their concerns, say about being back in school, or fear of infections, parents and teachers need to accept their concerns as valid, says Feuer, and then teach them tools to manage their anxiety and stress, like yoga, meditation and mindfulness.

Even better: practice these skills as a family.

"Combining that with family time to give parents the opportunity to implement these practices, but to open the door for dialogue," says Christian-Brathwaite.

And be on the lookout for changes in behavior like sleeping and eating patterns, she adds.

"Just being aware of those behavioral changes: Is there a decrease or increase in eating? Is there a decrease or increase in exercise? Who are they hanging out with? What are they doing?"

All of those can be indicators of a child starting to struggle emotionally.

3. Be ready to provide extra support to students and teachers

"I really recommend that you just assume that everyone has experienced some level of pain," says Chirstian-Brathwaite. "Every child that you engage with has some level of trauma."

But children's pain and emotional struggles often come out in the form of behavioral problems, like being disruptive in a classroom or inability to focus and learn.

For kids being disruptive in class, she advises against disciplinary action.

"I'm really asking schools not to implement suspensions or detentions immediately and to really take a more trauma sensitive lens," says Christian-Brathwaite. "Instead of focusing on the behavior, disciplining them, sending them out of school, leading to more disruption in education, let's focus on what's behind that behavior. Where is this pain coming from? What was the catalyst for this child to act out? What's happened at home that may lead this child to misbehave?"

School administrators should take a similar approach toward teachers, she adds. If a teacher is late, or having a hard time, she suggests that the school principal or superintendent ask the teacher what additional support they need to be successful.

4. Help kids embrace structure and routine

In a world filled with so much uncertainty, structure and routine are one's friends.

"Some of what is helpful is actually making a schedule," says Trujillo. "As you go back into this new way of living, structure is helpful. Writing down that schedule or having it in your calendar so that you have that sense of control and stability."

Feuer suggests working ahead of time with your child to come up with a structure and stick to it. "Be consistent," she says.

And if a child is worried about past experiences that have stressed them out, she suggests "collaborative problem solving."

"Just talking to kids about what they [can] do if that were to happen and how to manage it and how to talk about what skills they can use in terms of managing it," says Feuer.

5. Know where to turn for help

If a child is struggling emotionally, or in crisis, know beforehand where to reach for help, suggests Trujillo.

The easiest option for kids or their teachers or families is the Crisis Text Line, by texting HOME to 741741 and connecting to a trained counselor.

If you know a child struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-8255.

Before classes begin for the day, elementary music teacher Penelope Quesada gathers her most commonly used cleaning supplies and places them around the classroom in places of convenience. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Before classes begin for the day, elementary music teacher Penelope Quesada gathers her most commonly used cleaning supplies and places them around the classroom in places of convenience.

Natosha Via for NPR

Students in Louisville, Ky., have been back in classrooms for a month this school year, and already parents are pressuring the governor to address the district's rising COVID-19 case numbers. As of Tuesday, Jefferson County Public Schools has reported 379 positive cases among staff and 2,866 positive cases among students, with 13,346 students being quarantined in a district of about 96,000 students.

After a special session last week, Kentucky's legislature passed a bill reversing the state's school mask mandate, giving the decision-making power to school districts instead. JCPS superintendent Martin Pollio has said the district-wide mask mandate would remain in place.

JCPS teacher Penelope Quesada sees over 100 students a day between her six classes at Semple Elementary School. The majority of students at Semple qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals, which is a commonly used measure of poverty. Quesada said she has spent nearly $600 of her own money on cleaning supplies and other precautionary measures.

She's taught for 18 years, and said this year has been more stressful and emotional than any other year.

"Even with all the precautions, having the risk of students getting COVID or passing it to each other, it's almost like a life and death situation that I didn't have before. We care a lot about these kids and these families. I'm worried about the kids and their caregivers. We have a lot of grandparents that take care of the kids," she explained.

In addition to its current mask mandate, JCPS offers voluntary weekly testing for students and staff, and on Tuesday the school board approved a requirement that employees either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The school board decision comes after President Biden announced new steps to encourage K-12 schools to mandate masks for all, require vaccines for employees and step up testing for COVID-19.

Quesada said it feels like they're 100 days into the year, instead of just a few weeks.

Earlier this month, photojournalist Natosha Via spent a day with Quesada to see what being in school looks like right now:

Quesada and student teacher Christopher Wolfzorn place box fans in open windows to keep air circulating. After doing her own research, Quesada decided to face one fan outward and one fan inward for better circulation. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada and student teacher Christopher Wolfzorn place box fans in open windows to keep air circulating. After doing her own research, Quesada decided to face one fan outward and one fan inward for better circulation.

Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada turns on a fan outside her classroom door. She spends most of her time before class on COVID-19 precautions. She has spent nearly $600 of her own money on air purifiers and fans to improve the ventilation in her classroom. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada turns on a fan outside her classroom door. She spends most of her time before class on COVID-19 precautions. She has spent nearly $600 of her own money on air purifiers and fans to improve the ventilation in her classroom.

Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada poses for a portrait in her music classroom at Semple Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. She says she wants to continue teaching, but safe in-person learning involves so much more planning now than it did before. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada greets her second grade music class and gives them each a squirt of hand sanitizer as they enter her classroom. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada greets her second grade music class and gives them each a squirt of hand sanitizer as they enter her classroom.

Natosha Via for NPR

In order to keep them as separated as possible, students in Quesada's third grade class stand on carefully placed stickers on the floor. Because of the space instruments take up, and the need for students to be able to see their teacher, there's often only room for children to stand 3 feet apart, instead of 6. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

In order to keep them as separated as possible, students in Quesada's third grade class stand on carefully placed stickers on the floor. Because of the space instruments take up, and the need for students to be able to see their teacher, there's often only room for children to stand 3 feet apart, instead of 6.

Natosha Via for NPR

"I wish that schools serving the low economic families would be the priority. If those families get sick it's really traumatic. Who is going to advocate for these kids? That's what's stressful for us teachers because we care a lot about these kids and these families. I'm worried about the kids and their caregivers, we have a lot of grandparents that take care of the kids," Quesada says. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

"I wish that schools serving the low economic families would be the priority. If those families get sick it's really traumatic. Who is going to advocate for these kids? That's what's stressful for us teachers because we care a lot about these kids and these families. I'm worried about the kids and their caregivers, we have a lot of grandparents that take care of the kids," Quesada says.

Natosha Via for NPR

When a student has trouble with his mask, Quesada gets him a new one and helps him put it on properly. She also uses a headset and speaker so students can hear her better through her mask. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

When a student has trouble with his mask, Quesada gets him a new one and helps him put it on properly. She also uses a headset and speaker so students can hear her better through her mask.

Natosha Via for NPR

Students in Quesada's third grade music class all get the opportunity to play a xylophone. Quesada does what she can to keep the instruments clean. Her xylophones are expensive and wiping them down regularly could ruin them, so instead she spends her morning wrapping them in plastic wrap. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Students in Quesada's third grade music class all get the opportunity to play a xylophone. Quesada does what she can to keep the instruments clean. Her xylophones are expensive and wiping them down regularly could ruin them, so instead she spends her morning wrapping them in plastic wrap.

Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada spends some class time helping students adjust their masks or replacing them if they need new ones. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

Quesada spends some class time helping students adjust their masks or replacing them if they need new ones.

Natosha Via for NPR

The sign outside Semple Elementary reminds students they are wanted in school everyday. Natosha Via for NPR hide caption

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Natosha Via for NPR

The sign outside Semple Elementary reminds students they are wanted in school everyday.

Natosha Via for NPR

Natosha Via is a freelance photojournalist in Louisville, Ky.

It's Back-To-School Season In NYC. Here's How 3 Moms Are Handling It

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For the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of New York City's public school students are expected to return to classes in person today. Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of New York City's public school students are expected to return to classes in person today.

Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week marked the first day of school in New York City, the largest school district in the country. Mayor Bill de Blasio held a news conference last week showing off air purifiers, stacks of child-sized surgical masks and electrostatic sprayers. The message? "I say to all parents ... the best place for your kid is in school."

Natalya Murakhver agrees. She's a mother of a 7-year-old going into the second grade and an 11-year-old starting middle school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She led a group of parents who sued the district last spring to open up schools full time. "I think the mayor is doing a great job and really trying to emphasize the importance and safety of in-person instruction," she says, "which we've known for a very, very long time."

Farah Despeignes, who has two sons in middle school, disagrees: "Parents all over the city feel that the remote option is best for them." She is president of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group, and she says parents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan are organizing protests, discussing school boycotts and even lawsuits because they want to keep their children remote.

She says these parents have lost faith in the city's department of education, or DOE. "They do not trust the DOE. They do not trust that they will do what it says it is going to do, because they know from decades of experience that the DOE has never done right by them and their kids."

Earlier in the summer, schools across the country were envisioning a return to near-normal operations. Cases of COVID-19 were down, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had relaxed distancing requirements for schools, and 12-year-olds were getting vaccines. There was even talk of vaccinated teachers and students removing masks.

A surge in remote learning options

Then came the highly infectious delta strain, combined with restrictions easing around the country. Cases surged among unvaccinated people, including children.

Now, for the third school year in a row, schools are changing their plans on short notice — and they're inevitably leaving some parents unhappy. Polls suggest the vast majority of parents nationwide want their children back in person. Parents of color are more likely to be hesitant.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education has been tracking the plans of 100 of the largest and most prominent school districts across the country, which together educate around 1 in 5 students nationwide. They found the following shifts in July and August:

  • A big increase in mask mandates — 75 of those 100 districts now require them for all.
  • Vaccine mandates are on the rise as well. Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland and Seattle now require all school staff to get vaccinated without a testing alternative. And Los Angeles and Culver City, Calif., are requiring all students over 12 to be vaccinated. 
  • The number of districts offering remote learning doubled in a matter of weeks. Now, 92 of the 100 districts have some such plan; 56 of the districts offer remote learning to anyone who wants it.

As it was last year, New York City has become an embattled outlier among big-city school districts for its emphasis on in-person school. Remote learning will be available only to a relatively few students deemed "medically fragile" because of serious conditions, like cystic fibrosis or leukemia. "Our Medically Necessary Instruction program will provide immunocompromised students with a high-quality education and support from caring adults," Sarah Casasnovas of the Department of Education told NPR.

Selena Carrión, who lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, has a daughter, Aurora, going into kindergarten. Aurora had a liver transplant when she was around a year old. Carrión has been trying to get her qualified as medically fragile for home instruction, but the process, she says, has been opaque. That's true even though Carrión herself used to teach at her daughter's school.

While Carrión wishes her daughter could be with other students in person, she doesn't trust that the school building will be safe for her. They have portable classrooms and overcrowding. The cafeteria is in the basement, which limits opportunities for ventilation while children are eating. And, "even this past year with only some people in person, we constantly were getting shut down for outbreaks and staff had to constantly quarantine throughout the entire school year."

As this third disrupted school year gets under way, parents are worried, confused, tired and fed up. And both sides seem farther apart than ever in their views.

When children and teachers wear masks in class, studies show it limits the spread of the coronavirus. kali9/Getty Images hide caption

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When children and teachers wear masks in class, studies show it limits the spread of the coronavirus.

kali9/Getty Images

From a political and legal standpoint, the battle over whether mask wearing should be enforced in schools is still raging. But from a scientific standpoint, there's little debate: Masks really do help curb the spread of the coronavirus in school.

While there are still some non-believers ...

This week, a spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked to comment on a lawsuit challenging Florida's ban on mask mandates in school. The spokesperson told NPR, "The assertion that forced-masking all children ages 2 and up has any impact on school safety vis-a-vis COVID-19 is not data-driven and is not reflective of a scientific consensus." Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte expressed similar doubt last week. He called existing research "inconclusive" and announced a new rule that encourages schools to give parents the final word on whether their kids don masks.

... the research is conclusive

Several studies over the past year have shown that widespread masking can significantly curb transmission from student to student.

For example, one study in Wood County, Wisconsin, last fall found that schools that required masking had a whopping 37 percent lower incidence of COVID-19 than the surrounding community. Another study, conducted in Salt Lake County, Utah, last winter, found that high levels of mask wearing among students helped keep the rate of in-school spread of the coronavirus to under 1% — even as COVID-19 cases were surging in the wider community.

Now, in all those examples, schools were also using other protective strategies that experts strongly recommend layering on — like physical distancing and opening windows.

But studies show that even in situations where these other measures aren't being used, masking makes a big difference in keeping the virus from spreading. That was one conclusion of the ABC Science Collaborative, a major research initiative involving nearly 1 million students from 100 school districts and 14 charter school in North Carolina. It found that universal masking policies helped keep transmission rates of the coronavirus within schools to under 1% last fall and spring.

"The science clearly shows us that masking is an effective strategy to prevent within-school transmission when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is not yet available for all children," Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative, said in a statement reviewing those findings.

Even with the delta variant, within-school spread is low

Now, most of those studies were conducted before the highly contagious delta variant began its current sweep across the U.S. But unpublished data, gathered during this past summer school session in North Carolina, shows that transmission was indeed a bit higher as delta spread in the surrounding communities. But even then, thanks to universal masking and other mitigation strategies, the rate of within-school spread was under 3%, says Dr. Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke and also a member of the ABC Science Collaborative research team.

But, again, proper masking is key

Not masking could be disastrous for schools, says Julie Swann, a department head and professor at North Carolina State University who leads a COVID-19 forecasting team funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a recent modeling study from Swann's lab, without masking policies or other interventions in place, within the first three months of school, the delta variant could infect more than 75 percent of susceptible kids – those who aren't vaccinated and haven't previously had a bout of COVID-19.

"It's shocking, right?" Swann says. "And I'm the parent of two school-age [children]."

Swann says her model's projection represents "pretty close to a worst-case scenario" – a situation where kids are wearing ill-fitting masks that don't filter well, and mask wearing isn't reliably enforced. But, it doesn't have to be that way.

With proper masking and other interventions in place, she says, schools may still see some outbreaks because of delta's highly infectious nature, but far fewer than they would otherwise.

Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. Chris O'Meara/AP hide caption

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Chris O'Meara/AP

Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla.

Chris O'Meara/AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak is back in force.

The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.

The upshot is that the state could resume its efforts to impose financial penalties on the 13 school boards currently defying the mask mandate ban. Those have included docking salaries of local school board members who voted to impose student mask mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it has begun a new grant program to provide funding for school districts in Florida and elsewhere that lose money for implementing anti-coronavirus practices such as mandatory masks.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in a tweet that the decision means "the rule requiring ALL Florida school districts to protect parents' rights to make choices about masking kids is BACK in effect!"

DeSantis has argued that the new Parents Bill of Rights law reserves solely for parents the authority to determine whether their children should wear a mask to school. School districts with mandatory mask rules allow an opt-out only for medical reasons, not parental discretion.

Charles Gallagher, attorney for parents challenging the DeSantis ban, said he is "disappointed" by the appeals court decision.

"With a stay in place, students, parents and teachers are back in harm's way," Gallagher said in a tweet.

The back-and-forth legal battles stem from a lawsuit filed by parents represented by Gallagher and other lawyers contending that DeSantis does not have authority to order local school boards to ban mask mandates.

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper agreed in an Aug. 27 order, then on Wednesday lifted a stay that had blocked his ruling from taking effect. The appeals court now has put that stay back in place as the governor seeks a ruling making his mask mandate ban permanent.

The appeals judges noted that a stay is presumed when a public officer or agency seeks appellate review of a judicial order.

"We have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters," the appeals judges wrote in a one-page decision. "Given the presumption against vacating the automatic stay, the stay should have been left in place pending appellate review."

In his previous order, Cooper said the overwhelming evidence is that wearing masks provides some protection for children in crowded school settings, particularly those under 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination. The court battle comes as Florida copes with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state.

On the Parents Bill of Rights, Cooper said his previous order follows the law that reserves health and education decisions regarding children to parents unless a government entity such as a school board can show their broader action is reasonable and narrowly tailored to the issue at hand.

The next stage of the legal fight will test whether Cooper's conclusions are correct.

Parents drop their children off for the first day of school in Novi, Mich., on Tuesday. Emily Elconin/Bloomberg/Getty Images hide caption

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Emily Elconin/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Parents drop their children off for the first day of school in Novi, Mich., on Tuesday.

Emily Elconin/Bloomberg/Getty Images

On Thursday, President Biden announced a series of actions aimed at getting control of the surging pandemic. Alongside new vaccine requirements for private businesses, he announced new steps to encourage K-12 schools to mandate masks for all, require vaccines for employees and step up testing for COVID-19.

Coronavirus safety measures like these have become political flashpoints, and nowhere more than in schools. There have been violent confrontations at school board meetings over mask requirements, and states including Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah have all tried to stop districts from requiring masks. This comes as the highly contagious delta variant is causing a rise in cases among young people, and those under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines.

The United States has a long tradition of local control and funding of its 13,000-odd school districts. The federal government has limited oversight powers, and provides around 8 % of total funds spent on public schools. However, the president seems to be leaning heavily on both the carrots and sticks he does have. The actions announced on Thursday include:

  • Some districts are opposing their states to strengthen COVID-19 safety measures. Alachua and Broward counties in Florida, for example, recently defied the governor to require masks in schools. Now, President Biden promises to fill in any gaps in funding that result. This goes above and beyond the $122 billion set aside for school reopenings in the American Rescue Plan. According to the White House, "Local school districts will be able to apply to the Department of Education in the coming weeks to restore funding withheld by state leaders ... when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools." The Department of Education announced that the new grant program will be called Project SAFE (Supporting America's Families and Educators), and it will be funded under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. 
  • Teachers and staff directly employed or funded by the federal government — including those at U.S. Department of Defense schools, Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools and Head Start and Early Head Start preschool programs for children in poverty — are now subject to a vaccine requirement. This requirement covers nearly 300,000 school staff serving more than 1 million children. 
  • Biden's plan also highlights his intention to use the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to go after states that, in the federal government's view, discriminate against students with disabilities by banning mask mandates. There are already investigations open in five states. 

In addition, Biden's plan calls on states to require vaccines for all school employees. There was no reward or sanction explicitly attached to this effort. For now, the president is simply "asking" states to follow the example of places like California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Students exit Hollywood High School after a day of school in Los Angeles. Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Students exit Hollywood High School after a day of school in Los Angeles.

Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the U.S. — has approved a measure mandating that students 12 and over be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to attend in-person classes.

The move could potentially invite legal challenges — but it could also pave the way for other districts to follow suit.

One by one, the eight-member school board on Thursday cited scientific evidence regarding the efficacy of the available vaccines, tried to assuage fears about past wrongdoings against communities of color by medical experts, addressed misinformation and underscored the importance of in-person learning. The final vote was 7-0, with one recusal.

"This is a tough decision," Board Member Mónica García said before declaring a vote in favor of the mandate. "This action is not about violating anybody's rights. This action is about doing our jobs" and providing the best and safest education possible, she said.

"LAUSD is leading because we must," García said.

Board member Jackie Goldberg recalled firsthand experience with the polio epidemic, which led to students losing limbs.

"Polio was ravaging Los Angeles when I was growing up. And you know what stopped it? Vaccinating everybody!" Goldberg shouted.

"I see this as a community necessity to protect the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated," she said. "It is our moral, ethical, political, religious — pick a word — it is our ... responsibility to protect those children."

Another board member, Nick Melvoin, noted that a COVID-19 vaccine would be one of many vaccines already required for students to attend public schools, including vaccines against rubella, mumps, diphtheria, measles and chicken pox, among others.

The new rule takes effect in January. Students 12 and up will need to show they've received their first dose by Nov. 21 and their second dose by Dec. 19. However, students in extracurricular programs face an earlier Oct. 3 deadline for their first dose and "no later than Oct. 31" for the second.

Angry parents spoke out against the mandate

Prior to the vote, angry parents pushed back against the idea of a mandate, arguing that district leaders are stripping them of their rights as parents and caretakers.

"None of you have school-aged children," one woman said during a public comment statement. "This a family decision. ... It is not up to you to make this decision for us."

Others called the mandate premature, given that none of the vaccines has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for 12- to 15-year-olds. The agency has, however, expanded emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those 12 to 15 years old.

Megan Reilly, interim superintendent for the district, said she was moved to support the vaccine requirement based on existing medical evidence about the efficacy of the inoculations, the alarming spread of the delta variant among children and a recent interaction with a high school senior.

"We owe this child his senior year and to have a senior year with his friends, with his water polo team, with graduation, with prom. Everything that senior year should encompass in a childhood," she said.

Reilly also underscored the importance of face-to-face learning from teachers and interactions with other children.

"As the second-largest district in the country with a very diverse student population, we know the impacts of COVID-19 are varied among students and their families." But, she concluded, "vaccinations are an essential part of the multilayered protections against COVID-19."

Faculty and staff already had a mandate

About 600,000 children are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LAUSD already requires all faculty and staff members to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment with the district — a step further than the state, which allows staff members who refuse to get the shots to take regular coronavirus tests instead.

In K-12 school settings countywide, between Aug. 15 and 29, there were 5,207 COVID-19 cases among students and 729 staff cases reported, with the vast majority occurring at LAUSD, which tests everyone weekly. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health does not report the number of school cases by age group.

Last month, neighboring Culver City Unified became the first school district in California, if not the nation, to enact its own student vaccination mandate.

More Than 45,000 Louisiana Students Could Be Out Of School Until October Due To Ida

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Upper Little Caillou Elementary School in Terrebonne Parish, La., saw significant storm damage from Hurricane Ida almost two weeks ago. Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Upper Little Caillou Elementary School in Terrebonne Parish, La., saw significant storm damage from Hurricane Ida almost two weeks ago.

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After starting the school year in-person, teacher Susan Adams is once again stuck at home, waiting for her school building to reopen. Adams teaches high school English in Terrebonne Parish, on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, an area that saw significant storm damage from Hurricane Ida almost two weeks ago.

"We all knew that there was definitely going to be water in the school, but the extent of the water in the school is kind of mind-blowing," she said in a phone interview.

More than 250,000 K-12 students in Louisiana are still waiting for classrooms to reopen after Ida tore through the state. With power now restored to some areas, including most of New Orleans, many schools plan to resume classes next week. But some communities, especially those in the state's hard-hit river and coastal parishes, like Terrebonne, don't expect to get electricity back until late September, and building repairs could keep students out of the classroom well into October.

That means more than 45,000 Louisiana students are facing a month or more of school closures.

Ida devastated some school communities

Adams has been able to assess the damage to her school, South Terrebonne High School, on frequent visits to the National Guard aid station that's set up nearby and through pictures shared by school leaders. She said the walls and floors are slick with mud, the windows are blown out and pieces of the roof are strewn everywhere.

She has spent 20 years teaching at South Terrebonne, and she describes the school as her "home away from home." Her son is a sophomore there, and her husband coaches the football team. She and her family are relying on a generator to run an air-conditioning unit at night so they're comfortable enough to sleep. Their home is still without running water.

Adams said her son is miserable with the football season postponed indefinitely, and she expects that her students feel similarly.

"Do you know how many of my students stayed and lived through the storm, like they stayed and didn't evacuate? I think quite a few. I think quite a few lost quite everything they had. We're going to have to love those kids hard when we go back."

For now, she has been using her cellphone to occasionally send her students uplifting messages on Google Classroom.

"I just told them it's OK to grieve, but give yourself a time limit and then go out and help your community," she said.

Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Tuesday that he expects between 50,000 and 75,000 students to return to the classroom in the next week, now that electricity has been restored to some parts of the state, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

What the road to recovery looks like for schools

Electricity is just one part of the equation. Severe building damage in the state's river parishes as well as in parts of Jefferson Parish, which houses the state's largest public school district, may cause lengthier school closures and significant funding challenges.

That's a situation that Karl Bruchhaus, superintendent of Calcasieu Parish schools, is all too familiar with. A year ago, his district was devastated by Hurricane Laura, another Category 4 storm. Bruchhaus said most of the district's school buildings were significantly damaged by the storm, and school leaders initially attempted to keep school going online. But even after power was restored, widespread internet outages made learning virtually impossible for most students.

It became clear that students needed to be back in classrooms, Bruchhaus explained, and the district worked to reopen less damaged school buildings as quickly as possible.

But more than a year later, he said his district still hasn't been able to repair the bulk of hurricane damage to school buildings. According to Bruchhaus, there just isn't the money for it: Calcasieu Parish's public schools suffered an estimated $400 million in building damage from hurricanes last year, and according to the district, it has only received $116,000 in assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency so far. In response to NPR's request for comment, a spokesperson for FEMA said the agency was "looking into the situation."

"There's just hurdle after hurdle after hurdle," Bruchhaus said. "If it's not the federal process, then when it gets to the state, there's another process and, you know, our vendors, they're not going to work for free."

In the meantime, students and teachers are still going to school in the damaged buildings.

"They're going to school with concrete floors and no tile on the floor. They're going to school with roof leaks when it rains," Bruchhaus said. "They're accepting all of that, and frankly, we're having a pretty good instructional year, absent the COVID issue, which is a daily debacle."

His message to school leaders who have been hit hard by Ida is to focus on the students and not let this storm derail their education.

In a wave of lawsuits in nearly half a dozen states, families of students with disabilities are joining the legal battle over masks in schools. Some parents say it's a matter of life and death for immunocompromised students. Justin Paget/Getty Images hide caption

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In a wave of lawsuits in nearly half a dozen states, families of students with disabilities are joining the legal battle over masks in schools. Some parents say it's a matter of life and death for immunocompromised students.

Justin Paget/Getty Images

Brittany Schwaigert says her 13-year-old son, Greyson, needs his peers to wear their masks.

Greyson has tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare genetic disorder, which means contracting COVID-19 could send him into renal failure among other complications. He is also behind in school due to developmental delays.

"He doesn't understand that he's in danger and so therefore he doesn't understand he has to [put on a] mask." Schwaigert says. "Those kinds of advanced concepts are out of his grasp. So, it requires everyone around him to protect him."

Brittany Schwaigert with her husband, Ryan, 13-year-old Greyson (far right) and 10-year-old Lachlan. Schwaigert is a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit challenging the Tennessee governor's opt-out policy on masks. Brittany Schwaigert hide caption

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Brittany Schwaigert

Brittany Schwaigert with her husband, Ryan, 13-year-old Greyson (far right) and 10-year-old Lachlan. Schwaigert is a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit challenging the Tennessee governor's opt-out policy on masks.

Brittany Schwaigert

He attends school at Collierville Municipal School District in Tennessee. In mid-August, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, issued an executive order that allows parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.

As of Aug. 20, 16% of students in Greyson's district were opting out. Schwaigert is a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit challenging the governor's opt-out policy. On Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked Lee's order from being enforced, but that ruling only lasts until Sept. 17.

Schwaigert says Greyson can only get the special education services and socialization he needs in the classroom. But the opt-out order, she adds, would put her son in danger when he is at school. "We cannot rely on other people's parenting to protect our special needs child. That's absurd."

In a wave of lawsuits in nearly half a dozen states, families of students with disabilities are joining the legal battle over masks in schools. Complaints filed in Tennessee, Florida, Utah, Texas and South Carolina argue that restrictions on mask mandates infringe on disability rights and that children with disabilities are being forced to choose between their health and their education.

"We hear all the time, 'Oh, only kids with preexisting conditions are the ones that get sick and die,' " Schwaigert says. "Well, that's my kid. That is my child. He has a lot of preexisting conditions, and he matters."

The U.S. Department of Education has also said restrictions on mask mandates may be discriminatory against students with disabilities. On Aug. 30, the department's Office for Civil Rights announced it is investigating mask mandate restrictions in five states, including in Tennessee, Utah and South Carolina.

A choice between safety and education

With restrictions on mask mandates in place, disability rights advocates are arguing that students with disabilities are putting their lives at risk to attend school.

Parents must "make the impossible decision of deciding whether to pull their children out of in-person learning or risk severe reactions or death as a result of COVID-19," the complaint in Tennessee says.

The suits aren't demanding that schools institute a mask mandate. Instead, parents such as Schwaigert want schools to have the capacity to require masks on the basis of regional health metrics.

"Gov. Lee doesn't take into account that not all children are going to survive this decision," Schwaigert says. "He's making a broad strokes decision for every child in Tennessee."

Lee's office did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act guarantee that children with disabilities have access to an inclusive public education. They also require schools to provide "reasonable accommodations" to help make that education accessible — and the complaints argue those accommodations can include masks for everyone.

A Florida lawsuit was the first to argue that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' mask mandate ban is in violation of federal disability rights law. Matthew Dietz, one of the lawyers who filed that lawsuit, says mask mandates meet the benchmarks for a reasonable, necessary accommodation.

"If they don't get that mask when they go to school, they're at higher risk of death. So yes, it's necessary," Dietz says. "Is it reasonable? It's a piece of cloth, it's not difficult. Would it cause a fundamental alteration or an undue burden to the school system as a total? Not at all."

Dietz adds that it's just as reasonable as accommodating peanut allergies, which schools have been doing for years.

In a separate lawsuit, a Florida judge has already ruled that DeSantis cannot enforce a ban on mask mandates. Nonetheless, the governor is withholding money from two school districts that are requiring face coverings.

A spokesperson for DeSantis, who is named in Dietz's suit, told NPR, "The assertion that forced-masking all children ages 2 and up has any impact on school safety vis-a-vis COVID-19 is not data-driven and is not reflective of a scientific consensus."

In fact, several studies have shown that universal masking in schools can reduce the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends indoor masking for everyone in schools, regardless of vaccination status, with the exception of children younger than 2 years old.

A court hearing for Dietz's lawsuit over federal disability rights is set for Wednesday.

Running out of time

The legal battles over masks come as millions of children are heading back to school.

In addition to launching civil rights investigations in states that ban mask mandates, the Education Department has thrown its support behind school administrators who choose to ignore those bans. But even then, Dietz says, the federal government has been slow to act.

"There's no time for investigation," he says. "By the time they do investigations, we're going to have dead children."

In Utah, parents are challenging Republican Gov. Spencer Cox over the mask mandate ban in state court, rather than in federal court. Greg Skordas, an attorney on the case, says that with schools starting and children already returning to buildings without masks, they're running out of time.

He expects to hear back from the court within the next month. His complaint claims a mask mandate ban is in violation of the Utah Constitution, which guarantees all children access to free and fair public education. But for students with disabilities, he argues in-person school is too dangerous without a mask mandate.

A spokesperson for Cox declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

"Our case is very much like others that are brought across the country. Some are raised in federal court, some are in state court. But the fundamental provisions are the same," Skordas says. "We have gone so far as to preclude the ability of schools and medical professionals and health care providers to impose masks that effectively a lot of our young people are really in a difficult position."

For now, there isn't much that parents of children with disabilities can do except wait and see how the courts rule.

Caught Between Parents And Politicians, Nurses Fear Another School Year With COVID-19

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Nurses work at a COVID-19 testing day for students and school faculty at Brandeis Elementary School on in Louisville, Ky. Jon Cherry/Getty Images hide caption

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Nurses work at a COVID-19 testing day for students and school faculty at Brandeis Elementary School on in Louisville, Ky.

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Not long ago, Denver Public Schools nurse Rebecca Sposato was packing up her office at the end of a difficult school year. She remembers looking around at all her cleaning supplies and extra masks and thinking, "What am I going to do with all this stuff?"

It was May, when vaccine appointments were opening up for the majority of adults and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were loosening mask guidance.

"I honestly thought we were trending down in our COVID numbers, trending up in our vaccine numbers," she says. "And I thought the worst was over."

Now, four months later, the pandemic is already upending the new school year across the country, as the highly transmissible delta variant continues to cause a spike in cases. In Arizona, coronavirus outbreaks are forcing thousands of children and teachers to quarantine. In Georgia, many districts that began classes in-person without mask mandates switched back to remote learning after the virus spread. And in Oregon, some districts delayed the start of the school year after teachers were exposed to possible infection.

School nurses are tasked with caring for the health and safety of children at schools, and managing a third school year in a pandemic has put even more strain on those in a profession already facing staffing shortages.

It's Groundhog Day for overwhelmed school nurses

Katherine Burdge is a school nurse in Tampa, Fla., where classes started at the beginning of August amid a struggle between school districts and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who threatened to cut state funding for public schools that required students and staff to wear masks.

A judge ruled that DeSantis' executive order banning mask mandates was unconstitutional, but Burdge says school nurses are "dealing with the repercussions" of the back and forth. Her district of Hillsborough County had to isolate or quarantine more than 13,000 students and staff in just the last month — over 2,500 of whom tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We're dealing with COVID on the front lines every day," she says. "It's a serious manifestation that is just overwhelming the district, the state, everybody."

Eileen Gavin, a school nurse in Monmouth County, N.J., also says it's been overwhelming and cites a beat up and faded "Parking For School Nurses Only" sign as a visual representation for how she and other school nurses are feeling.

"It's kind of like Groundhog Day: another year of contact tracing and vaccinating and kind of leading the kids back to school safely," Gavin says. "So, I do think we are traumatized."

Nurses are caught in the crossfire between parents and public officials

Gavin says nurses continue to show up and do their jobs, but are feeling the strain of a workload that has expanded beyond what they could have predicted.

"It really is a lot to bear," she says. "We are the only healthcare professional in the schools and we have input and weigh in on so many things."

Gavin says she spends a lot of time talking with parents to help them sift through "the noise and the misinformation and give them valid resources" on dealing with the coronavirus.

"We assist in giving them the information so they can make an informed decision to keep their child healthy and safe," she says.

Burdge, who's also the President-elect of Florida's School Nurses Association, similarly says that school nurses want to be a resource for parents, but that the fight over masks between public officials in her state has caused some grief.

"We don't want to have those nasty words or fights or debates or anything along those lines with them," Burdge says. "We are a resource for them, and open communication, I think, is key at this point."

Sposato says that where she is in Denver is "very pro mask." She thinks Burdge's experience dealing with outbreaks — likely intensified by DeSantis' order to eliminate mask mandates — indicate "why we need to be following the health guidelines and scientific evidence on this," she says. "The health guidelines work."

Fears over the safety of students and staff have grown going into a third pandemic school year

Sposato says her greatest fear heading into this new school year "is that one of the mutations is going to outflank the vaccine, and we will see steeper, higher numbers of COVID being present in our community."

Gavin says her biggest fear is over school closures. "Kids need to be in school. We need to be in school," she says. She hopes that putting layers of protection in place will allow the year to commence safely. "We need to kind of stand firm with that so that we can keep our schools open for our kids.

Burdge says school closures are on everyone's minds, but that she's also concerned "for our nurses and their safety and well-being — that we are going to get burnt out."

"Our school nurses are exhausted," Gavin says. "I think last year I had said school nurses felt like the weight of the pandemic was on their shoulders. We're on our knees now, with the weight of the pandemic on our shoulders."

Elena Burnett and Amy Isackson produced and edited this story for broadcast. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the web.

Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana. Brandon Bell/Getty Images hide caption

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Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana.

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Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana, according to a tally by NPR. Districts in some of the hardest-hit areas, including Orleans and Jefferson Parish, have not yet announced a reopening date. School leaders have had their hands full so far trying to make sure staff and students are safe, whether they stayed in town or evacuated, and assessing damage to their buildings.

Like students around the country, Louisiana's children became well-versed in virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But as member station WWNO reports, virtual learning isn't an option for many students right now: The hurricane caused widespread power outages, and service is being slowly restored across much of New Orleans. Cell and internet service is also spotty. Plus, New Orleans educators tell NPR, the storm formed so quickly, and over a weekend, that even at the best-resourced schools, students and teachers weren't able to plan ahead and take Chromebooks or hotspots home with them.

Elizabeth Ostberg runs a network of alternative public high schools and a middle school in New Orleans. The schools are collecting money to distribute $100 to families for immediate needs, including blue tarps for roofs, gas for cars and generators, food, water and temporary shelter. Ostberg's next goal is to get at least one of her school buildings open both for learning and as a cooling center during these hot summer days, with the highs around 90 degrees.

"Distance learning would only work right now with staff and students who evacuated far enough away to have power, and have computers and Internet," she wrote in a text message after a cell phone call with NPR failed. "We got all our students these [things] last year, but not this year because school was in person. So it's not that we don't want to provide it, it's that it feels impractical right now."

In early August, New Orleans Public Schools began the school year with no virtual learning. WWNO's Aubri Juhasz reports that some parents have been pushing for the return of a remote option because of fears about the delta variant. But Superintendent Henderson Lewis has stuck with his decision, citing the urgency of getting children back in classrooms to avoid losing "a generation of students."

Now, in-person learning has been interrupted yet again for a different reason.

Douglas Harris at Tulane University has researched the effects of both COVID and Hurricane Katrina on student learning. He estimates that, realistically, it could be awhile before most students in the New Orleans metro area are back in classrooms. The power needs to come back on; students have to return if they evacuated; and in some cases they may need to quarantine if they've been traveling or in close quarters in shelters or hotels.

"Possibly we have five or six weeks of essentially no learning happening, which is worse than Katrina," Harris says, in the sense that many students re-enrolled elsewhere within two weeks or so after evacuating from the 2005 storm.

This was already shaping up to be an incredibly challenging school year. After so much disruption and loss, schools were just starting to get to know their students again . Existing concerns about mental health, engagement and missed learning are now multiplied. Harris says teachers will need to triage their curriculums due to the lost time. And his research shows there are some students who, once separated from school, don't come back.

"Dropouts are my biggest concern," Harris explains. "You have a lot of students who are already on the margin of staying in school. And you're making it really difficult for them to be in school."

Patrick Dobard, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans — a nonprofit that assists charter schools with matters like professional development, curriculum and data — echoed this concern, noting that enrollment in New Orleans was down in fall 2020-2021, and down even further at the beginning of this school year. To compound the problem, schools are staring down their Oct. 1 "count date," which will determine their funding from the state based on enrollment, unless waivers are granted.

Elizabeth Ostberg says her group of alternative schools, which she founded after Katrina, is entirely focused on preventing dropouts and empowering students who have not been successful elsewhere. She says this new school year had started out brightly.

"Kids were really excited to be back in person. Classes were going well. It actually felt really good."

She's hopeful that she'll be able to keep in touch with students and get them back on track when the power comes back on.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 23: Students at the Xavier Academy, like many schools around Houston, are required to wear masks. Staff and faculty have been vaccinated and 90% of students in attendance have also been vaccinated. Brandon Bell/Getty Images hide caption

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HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 23: Students at the Xavier Academy, like many schools around Houston, are required to wear masks. Staff and faculty have been vaccinated and 90% of students in attendance have also been vaccinated.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

It's the kind of news story that keeps parents of school-age children up at night: Kids go to school, dutifully wear masks, and still half the class ends up infected with the coronavirus.

That's what happened this past spring at an elementary school in Marin County, Calif. The school seemed to be taking all the right precautions against COVID-19 transmission. Teachers and students were required to be masked while indoors. Student desks were spaced 6 feet apart. Doors and windows were left open.

Still, when an unvaccinated teacher who had mild allergy-like symptoms briefly removed their mask to read out loud to the class, the result was a classroom outbreak. All told, 27 cases were identified, including infections in other classrooms. None of the infections resulted in severe cases, and no kids were hospitalized.

"For me, the takeaway of this story really is that even just momentary short, brief lapses in, you know, taking off a mask can open up an opportunity for delta to escape through," says Tracy Lam-Hine, the Marin County epidemiologist who authored the report on the outbreak.

And because delta is so contagious, more than twice as contagious as the original strain of the virus, according to studies, experts say it's more critical than ever that schools deploy multiple layers of precautions to curb the spread of the virus.

Here are some of the strategies experts recommend for safer classrooms:

1. Create a protective cocoon around children - with vaccines: Because children younger than 12 are still not eligible to get a covid vaccine, public health experts say it's essential that anybody who spends time indoors with kids in this age group get vaccinated. That includes adults and vaccine eligible children age 12 and up. This creates a kind of protective cocoon around unvaccinated kids. Lam-Hine says the California elementary school outbreak underscores why this is so important. The teacher at the center of the outbreak was not vaccinated. If they had been, "that potentially could have prevented some of this," says Lam-Hine.

Dr. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Washington University in St. Louis, points to data from Israel showing that the more adults got vaccinated, the fewer kids got the virus. "They actually drove down their rates [of infections] in kids, which I think just goes to show the cocooning thing works," Newland says.

2. Enforce mask wearing – and wear good masks: When schools enforce universal masking, studies show they can successfully curb the spread of the virus. Unpublished data from summer schools in North Carolina found that good masking helped keep transmission of the delta variant down to below 3%, according to Dr. Ibukun Kalu of Duke University, one of the researchers on that project. Because the delta variant spreads much more easily, experts say it's more important than ever that kids wear good masks – ones that are comfortable, fit properly (without big gaps around the face) and do a good job of filtration. Here's a list of some kids masks recommended by aerosols experts at Virginia Tech.

Keeping doors and windows open to create cross ventilation is important in dispersing viral particles. Sonja Jordan/Getty Images hide caption

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Keeping doors and windows open to create cross ventilation is important in dispersing viral particles.

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3. Improve indoor ventilation: The coronavirus spreads primarily through the air. Viral particles can accumulate indoors and linger, sometimes for hours — think of it like cigarette smoke, says Jose-Luis Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and aerosols scientist. When a smoker lights up, at first the smoke just hovers around them. "But after half an hour ... the whole room is filled with smoke," he says.

If you want to clear smoke from a room, you open the windows and doors. The same thing holds true when it comes to dispersing infectious particles – opening windows and doors creates cross ventilation.

Jimenez recommends that every school test how well each room is ventilated by using a portable nondispersive infrared (NDIR) carbon dioxide meter. That's because CO2 is a useful proxy for infectious aerosols. People are constantly exhaling CO2, and, like aerosols, the gas can get trapped inside a room. So if the CO2 levels are too high, that means not enough air is flowing in and out of the room. You want to keep indoor CO2 levels under 700 parts per million, Jimenez says. If the levels are much higher, turn to other strategies to improve the room's ventilation, like keeping windows and doors open whenever students are in the classroom.

The cost of a good NDIR CO2 meter starts at roughly $90, Jimenez says. Cheaper CO2 monitors that don't use NDIR technology are available, but he warns that they don't really work.

4. Use portable air filters: Portable HEPA filters are effective at removing virus particles from a room, Jimenez says. Make sure the air filter you buy is large enough for the classroom, keep it at the highest setting and, he says, place it in the center of the classroom.

You can also buy several smaller air filters and put them around the classroom, he says. (For more on buying high-quality air filters and improving classroom ventilation and filtration, check out this in-depth post from Colorado Public Radio.)

5. Take things outdoors whenever possible – especially during lunch: Jimenez and many other experts urge schools to have activities outdoors as much as they can — especially during lunch, a vulnerable time when kids are unmasked en masse. If kids must eat indoors, open windows, use portable air filters, reduce eating time and space students out as much as possible. Also, try to keep them from talking.

6. Physical distancing still matters: Experts say that schools should continue to keep three feet of distance between students. But, they note, in many public schools that have reopened at full capacity, that's just not happening. Which is one more reason why schools should focus their energy on these other strategies, they say.

"I think our foundational protective element here is vaccination," Kalu says, "and we're layering other things on top of it in schools."

Students wear mask as they arrive at school for in-person learning at Holmes Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., on Oct. 21, 2020. Students in Illinois schools will be able to take up to five excused mental or behavioral health days beginning in January 2022. Nam Y. Huh/AP hide caption

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Nam Y. Huh/AP

Students wear mask as they arrive at school for in-person learning at Holmes Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., on Oct. 21, 2020. Students in Illinois schools will be able to take up to five excused mental or behavioral health days beginning in January 2022.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Students across Illinois will be able to take up to five excused mental health days starting in January.

Under a bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month, students who decide to take a mental health day will not be required to provide their school with a doctor's note and will be able to make up any work that was missed on their day off.

"Having this now for all students across the state will be really beneficial, especially with what's going on with COVID," State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, who co-sponsored the bill, told the Journal-Courier. "Many students feel stressed, and have developed anxiety and depression because they're not able to see teachers and friends, and may have lower grades due to remote learning."

Child psychiatrists say they expect more children will need help

The pandemic has placed unique strains on children, and as a new school year begins, child psychiatrists say they expect to see a surge of kids who need help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and May of last year, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.

"The younger school-age kids are more anxious about separation from their parents and caregivers," child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, told NPR. "They're worried about getting sick," or their parents getting sick.

For teens, the challenges can be somewhat different, according to Ramtekkar. Most teenagers are struggling with social and academic anxiety, he said, as most are worried about socializing with their peers again and adapting to full-time in-person learning.

The new law is designed to help kids get care

With the new law in Illinois, Hernandez says students will have more of an opportunity to get the care they need.

"I am really excited for this. I think it will help students, parents and teachers, and can help them understand what's going on in their students' lives," Hernandez said.

Once a student requests a second mental health day, a school counselor will reach out to their family and the student may be referred to get professional help, according to the bill.

Hernandez says that after students take their second mental health day, they should understand that a conversation with an adult is needed about whatever it is they're going through.

"Many students are going through a lot mentally and emotionally and they need support," Hernandez said.

Several states have taken similar steps

School districts across Illinois will have until the end of the year to come up with a specific plan to execute the new law ahead of its effective date in January.

Illinois joins states such as Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia that have passed similar bills over the last two years allowing students to be absent from school due to mental or behavioral health reasons, according to The New York Times.

Fewer college students have transferred schools during the pandemic, according to new data. Westend61/Getty Images/Westend61 hide caption

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Fewer college students have transferred schools during the pandemic, according to new data.

Westend61/Getty Images/Westend61

Fewer students transferred between colleges over the 2020-2021 school year, and new data show that trends in who is transferring between colleges — and where they're going — may be exacerbating existing inequity.

Nearly 200,000 fewer students transferred last year compared to the year before — an 8.4% decline, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

"In normal times, the transfer plays a very important role," says Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Transfer options provide students with "more accessible educational pathways to bachelor's degree attainment, particularly for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or low income communities or racial and ethnic minorities."

Students might start at a 2-year college and transfer to a 4-year school, or make the switch to a community college to take the last classes they need for a degree.

When the pandemic began, many predicted that transfer rates would spike. "There was a lot of concern that the pandemic would disrupt students' education plans, not just by keeping freshmen out of college, but also by causing continuing students to switch schools unexpectedly," says Ryu.

But that didn't happen.

"Lateral transfers" — a term used to describe the switch from similar types of schools, like one 2-year school to another, or from one 4-year school to a different one — declined 11.9%. Meanwhile, "reverse transfers" — from a 4-year university to a 2-year community college, for example — dropped by 16.2%. Overall, enrollment for Black transfer students dropped the most, though white students, Native American students and Latinx students also saw large declines. The decline in transfer enrollment for men was also double that of women.

What this means, Ryu says, is that students who may have opted to transfer in previous years have instead stayed put at their schools or withdrawn altogether. Previous students who might have opted to re-enroll in pre-pandemic times didn't do that.

The National Student Clearinghouse reported recently that one in four freshmen who started college in the fall of 2019 didn't return to school in the fall of 2020. The rate of students who came back to school dropped two percentage points from the previous year. Undergraduate college enrollment has been falling for a decade, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that problem. Community colleges saw the highest enrollment drops over the past academic year.

Despite the declines in transfer students, the number of "upward transfers" — from 2-year to 4-year colleges — fell only slightly, consistent with patterns before the pandemic. One outlier: Transfers to highly selective colleges jumped, reaching record rates in the spring. While rates of growth for each racial and ethnic group grew, "white students drove that growth at these institutions," according to the report.

She and other researchers will be tracking these transfer students to learn more about how they fare, and she says ensuring they stay enrolled in school should be top of mind for institutions over the coming year. "We need to really pay attention to persistence and timely progression toward the degree completion for these particular students who took this pandemic as an opportunity to go into 4-year institutions from 2-year schools," Ryu says.

In a new nationwide survey, half of student-transportation coordinators described school bus driver shortages as either "severe" or "desperate." © Allard Schager/Getty Images hide caption

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© Allard Schager/Getty Images

In a new nationwide survey, half of student-transportation coordinators described school bus driver shortages as either "severe" or "desperate."

© Allard Schager/Getty Images

So far this fall, children heading back to school have faced many obstacles: battles over masks, vaccines, delta-variant surge fears and mental health needs. Now, in many places, there is a last-mile problem — quite literally.

In a new nationwide survey, half of student-transportation coordinators described their school bus driver shortages as either "severe" or "desperate."

In Chicago this week, 70 bus drivers, about 10% of the workforce, abruptly quit over the district's new COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to WBEZ's Sarah Karp. The move left some 2,100 students, a little less than half of them in special education, without a way to get to school.

And in Pittsburgh, the public schools notified families that they are short almost 650 bus seats for the first day of school on Friday.

Curt Macysyn is executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which conducted the survey with two other trade associations. He said the shortages are unprecedented. "This back-to-school period is nothing like the previous periods we've seen," he told NPR. "In previous years, we've seen regionalized driver shortages, but nothing to the extent that we're seeing today."

He says there are many reasons for the shortage.

Many drivers were furloughed during the COVID-19 school closures in 2020, while others took the chance to retire. Respondents to the survey were most likely to say that the pay they were able to offer was a major factor affecting their ability to recruit drivers. (Salary.com reports the median school bus driver earns $35,421 per year, which varies by region.)

Brand-new bus drivers can't be hired on the spot like retail or fast-food workers; they need commercial driver's licenses. A second factor in the shortage, Macysyn pointed out, is that in many places over the past year and a half, departments of motor vehicles were closed or had limited operations, so people couldn't get their road tests or update their qualifications.

A third concern cited was safety. School buses are full of children, and children under 12 can't yet be vaccinated against COVID-19. Macysyn says that while measures such as distancing and opening windows seem to be pretty effective, "we certainly understand if folks have those concerns," especially if they have risk factors.

Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is reportedly talking to ride-share companies like Lyft or Uber, or even paying parents to drive their own children to school. In the meantime, Macysyn says, schools and private school-bus contractors will continue to try to recruit drivers who are civic minded and appreciate the part-time hours and spending time with children. "There's a segment that just love doing what they do. We say they bleed yellow."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site last month in Pembroke Pines, Fla. DeSantis has sought to block schools from requiring masks for students. Marta Lavandier/AP hide caption

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site last month in Pembroke Pines, Fla. DeSantis has sought to block schools from requiring masks for students.

Marta Lavandier/AP

Despite a judge's ruling last week declaring that the Florida governor's ban on mask mandates in schools is unconstitutional, the State Board of Education has forged ahead with its threat to withhold school board members' salaries in districts that require the face coverings in classrooms.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced that school board members in Alachua and Broward counties will not be getting paychecks from the Department of Education this month, saying their mandatory face mask policies violate parental rights. The board will hold onto the funds until each school board complies with Gov. Ron DeSantis' now-overturned executive order.

"We're going to fight to protect parents' rights to make health care decisions for their children," Corcoran said in a statement Monday. "They know what is best for their children."

"What's unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow," Corcoran said.

It's unclear if others counties will be penalized

Local reports indicate that several other school districts have implemented mask mandates, including Orange, Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Palm Beach, Indian River and Leon counties. It is unclear whether school board members in those counties will also have their pay withheld.

The bitter fight is playing out as a rash of coronavirus infections sweeps across Florida, including among children who are not eligible for vaccination. On Monday, officials reported 18,608 new cases.

DeSantis' opposition stems from the lack of parental control. He argues that under existing Florida law, parents must be free to opt out of student mask requirements. However, the rules in place in Alachua and Broward counties only allow for a medical exemption from a doctor.

DeSantis, who barred the mask mandates on July 30, warned that "there will be consequences" for districts that defy the ban.

A judge said DeSantis' order lacked authority

But on Friday, following a four-day trial, Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of parents who sued, arguing DeSantis overstepped his authority in forbidding the face covering requirement and said it cannot be enforced. He noted that face mask mandates that follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are "reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion in this country."

Cooper also added that DeSantis' order "is without legal authority."

DeSantis is appealing the decision and on Monday called Cooper's ruling "obviously problematic."

The move could potentially garner federal attention

The decision to withhold funding from Alachua and Broward counties could open the state up to further legal troubles.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced it had launched an investigation into five states "exploring whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities."

At the time, the office said it had refrained from opening investigations in Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona "because those states' bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions."

However, officials said they would continue to monitor those states and take action "if state leaders prevent local schools or districts from implementing universal indoor masking or if the current court decisions were to be reversed."

It is unclear if Florida's decision not to pay school board members will trigger an investigation. The Education Department did not immediately return NPR's requests for comment.

Education Dept. Announces Civil Rights Investigations Into 5 States' Mask Mandate Bans

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Nashville, Tenn., kindergarten teacher Amber Updegrove leads her class in a lesson this month. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced an investigation into Tennessee's requirement that schools allow families to opt out of mask mandates. John Partipilo/AP hide caption

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Nashville, Tenn., kindergarten teacher Amber Updegrove leads her class in a lesson this month. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced an investigation into Tennessee's requirement that schools allow families to opt out of mask mandates.

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The U.S. Department of Education sent a warning to five states on Monday that their statewide bans on mask mandates, including in schools, could violate students' civil rights. Suzanne B. Goldberg, the department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights, sent letters to state education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, informing them that the department's Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether their bans are discriminatory.

At the center of the department's concerns, according to Monday's letters, are students with disabilities who may be at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Goldberg's letters say these investigations will focus on whether the state bans are discriminatory by preventing students with disabilities from safely returning to in-person education.

Federal law "guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education in elementary and secondary school," Goldberg wrote in each of the letters. "This includes the right of students with disabilities to receive their education in the regular educational environment, alongside their peers without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs."

If students with disabilities do not feel safe returning to school because their classmates cannot be required to wear masks, the department's argument goes, then these bans could be considered discriminatory and violate either Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and/or Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

The announcement comes after President Biden issued a memorandum on Aug. 18 in which he directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to ensure that "Governors and other officials are giving students the opportunity to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities."

If the Education Department ultimately finds that these mask mandate bans do run afoul of federal civil rights law, it could threaten to withhold federal funding, though, on a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Cardona conceded that this was less than ideal.

"When we talk about withholding funds, those who suffer are the students," Cardona said. "Withholding funds doesn't usually work. If anything, it adds insult to injury to these students who are trying to get into the classroom."

The department says it is not at this time investigating other states with similar bans — including Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona — because those bans are not currently being enforced, due to either court orders or other actions.

In a statement to NPR, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, an elected Republican, said she supports the investigation:

"Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools. That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE."

In short, Hofmeister told NPR: "I want the law to be stricken."

Utah's state superintendent of public instruction, Sydnee Dickson, said in a statement: "While we appreciate [the Office for Civil Rights'] efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur. State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials. ... We look forward to working with OCR to clarify Utah's position on the issue."

As Schools Reopen, Child Psychiatrists Expect To See A Surge Of Kids Who Need Help

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"We have already been seeing a lot of pick up in pre-existing anxiety in anticipation of school starting," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar. "They're worried about getting sick," or their parents getting sick.
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As schools across the country reopen, mental health professionals are anticipating a surge in the number of kids seeking help in the coming weeks.

That's not unlike previous years.

"Historically, our busiest times of the year are a couple of weeks into the school year, perhaps the end of September, beginning of October," says Dr. Richard Martini, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Utah and Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. "These are times where you really begin to identify kids that are struggling — the schools begin to identify them."

But what's different this year is that the pandemic has already increased the number of kids struggling with mental illness. Another surge this fall might mean a further worsening of an ongoing crisis.

"It was about this time last year that hospitals started raising red flags, like 'we are being overrun in the [emergency department],' " says Amy Knight, president of the Children's Hospital Association.

According to the CDC, between March and May, 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24% increase in the proportion of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old, and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.

"And it hasn't really subsided," says Knight.

This year, the number of kids coming to hospitals for mental health needs in 2021 is 15% higher than two years ago, says Knight, referring to data collected by the Children's Hospital Association.

While many kids are excited to go back to school, mental health care providers around the country are already seeing signs of growing anxiety among students.

"We have already been seeing a lot of pick up in pre-existing anxiety in anticipation of school starting," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar at Nationwide Children's Hospital. The hospital has a school-based mental health program in 70 schools in the area. (It also provides financial support to NPR.)

The causes for anxiety differ for different age groups. "The younger school-age kids are more anxious about separation from their parents and caregivers," he says. "They're worried about getting sick," or their parents getting sick.

On the other hand, most teenagers are struggling with social and academic anxiety, he adds. They are worried about socializing with their peers again and adapting to full-time in-person learning.

"As the [Covid-19 case] numbers were improving, there was a significant amount of hope that, oh, great, now I can play basketball, or I can hug my friends when I see them," says Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Boston.

With cases rising again, she says, there's a lot of disappointment especially among older students. Many of her patients are angry, frustrated and stressed by the uncertainty of what this school year will look like.

"That uncertainty increases anxiety," says Christian-Brathwaite.

Kids most vulnerable to feeling anxious right now, or to having other mental health problems are those with certain risk factors, say child and adolescent psychiatrists.

"This is more for kids who already are prone to anxiety or they already had pre-existing depression, anxiety, separation related issues, trauma or things like that," says Ramtekkar.

And kids in communities of color have been disproportionately affected by trauma during the pandemic, says Dr. Warren Ng, president-elect for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. That's because their communities have been disproportionately affected by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

"What we've experienced over the past 18 months is that there's been a lot of stress and anxiety experienced by our children and adolescents and families," says Ng, who also directs outpatient behavioral health at Columbia University, which primarily serves Latino and African American families in Manhattan and the Bronx.

"Many of these children also live in households where there are more multigenerational family members, where you're more likely to experience a loss," he says

They are also more likely to have fallen behind with school work, he adds, because many don't have a private space at home for attending school online.

"What we've seen with the youth has been much more anxiety related to preparedness," says Ng. "They're concerned about how far they've fallen in terms of their schooling and their education and their progress. They've worried that they've lost a year of schooling."

Fortunately, schools and teachers are aware of all these issues. And many have been proactively reaching out to mental health experts for guidance and advice, says Christian-Brathwaite.

"I am getting a significant number of calls from schools requesting education and professional development for teachers around how to support kids with trauma," she says. "They're looking for tools to help support students."

Children's hospitals, too, have been preparing, some adding more resources in anticipation of a fall surge in mental health visits.

"This summer allowed us at the children's hospital and at the psychiatric hospital to catch up a little bit with recruitment and expanding services and capacity," says Dr. Vera Feuer, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Cohen's Children's Medical Center in Long Island, N.Y., and the associate vice president for school mental health at Northwell Health.

She hopes more kids and families will have access to care if and when kids struggle with mental health problems. For now, she says, her team is just watching and waiting. "It's the quiet before the storm phase."

Protesters against a COVID-19 mandate gesture as they are escorted out of the Clark County School Board meeting at the Clark County Government Center, in Las Vegas, on Aug. 12. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP hide caption

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Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Protesters against a COVID-19 mandate gesture as they are escorted out of the Clark County School Board meeting at the Clark County Government Center, in Las Vegas, on Aug. 12.

Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

A Nevada school board member said he had thoughts of suicide before stepping down amid threats and harassment. In Virginia, a board member resigned over what she saw as politics driving decisions on masks. The vitriol at board meetings in Wisconsin had one member fearing he would find his tires slashed.

School board members are largely unpaid volunteers, traditionally former educators and parents who step forward to shape school policy, choose a superintendent and review the budget. But a growing number are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests between deeply political constituencies over how racial issues are taught, masks in schools, and COVID-19 vaccines and testing requirements.

In his letter of resignation from Wisconsin's Oconomowoc Area School Board, Rick Grothaus said its work had become "toxic and impossible to do."

"When I got on, I knew it would be difficult," Grothaus, a retired educator, said by phone. "But I wasn't ready or prepared for the vitriolic response that would occur, especially now that the pandemic seemed to just bring everything out in a very, very harsh way. It made it impossible to really do any kind of meaningful work."

He resigned Aug. 15 along with two other members, including Dan Raasch, who wondered if his car and windshield would be intact after meetings.

The National School Boards Association's interim executive director, Chip Slaven, said there isn't evidence of widespread departures, but he and several board members reached by The Associated Press said the charged political climate that has seeped from the national stage into their meetings has made a difficult job even more challenging, if not impossible.

School board members question their jobs, and safety

In Vail, Arizona, speakers at a recent meeting took turns blasting school board members over masks, vaccines and discussions of race in schools — even though the board had no plans to act on, or even discuss, any of those topics. "It's my constitutional right to be as mean as I want to you guys," one woman said.

The board moved on after more than an hour, only to be interrupted by more shouting. Board member Allison Pratt recalled thinking that if she weren't already on the board, she wouldn't aspire to be.

"There is starting to be an inherent distrust for school boards, that there's some notion that we are out to indoctrinate children or to undermine parents or things like that, when we are on the same team," said Pratt, who has been on the board six years. "We are here to help children."

Pratt said she strives to view issues from the perspective of even the most extreme members of the community, and she has no plans to resign. But she has stepped up security at her home.

Police have been called to intervene in places including Vail, where parents protesting a mask mandate pushed their way into a board room in April, and in Mesa County, Colorado, where Doug Levinson was among school board members escorted to their cars by officers who had been unable to de-escalate a raucous Aug. 17 meeting. "Why am I doing this?" Levinson asked himself.

Kurt Thigpen wrote in leaving the Washoe County, Nevada, school board that he considered suicide amid relentless bullying and threats led by people who didn't live in the county, let alone have children in the schools. "I was constantly looking over my shoulder," he wrote in July.

Susan Crenshaw resigned from the Craig County, Virginia, school board this month with more than a year left in her term after being "blindsided," she said, by her board's decision to defy the state's mask mandate in a move that she said felt more driven by political than educational considerations.

"This is something that's come into play against government overreach and tyranny and other things that have absolutely nothing to do with the education of children," said Crenshaw, who taught for 31 years and whose district has just 500 students. "It's a bigger issue than the mask. I just feel like the mask is the spark or trigger that got this dialogue started."

Conflict also shows the crucial role school boards play

While experts say the widespread use of masks can effectively limit virus transmission in school buildings, opponents say they restrict breathing and the ability of children to read social cues. Conflicts over masks have put some boards in Florida, Texas and Arizona at odds with their Republican governors.
In several states, embattled board members who do not resign are facing recall efforts. Ballotpedia lists 59 school board recall efforts against 147 board members in 2021.

Vail board President Jon Aitken is among them, targeted by critics who say the mental and physical health of students has declined under pandemic restrictions. The Arizona board has faced contentious issues in recent years, including the Red for Ed movement three years ago, when 50,000 people rallied at the state Capitol for increased education funding. But he said this is different.
"That was a very real issue, with legitimate concerns on both sides," Aitken said. Much of what is said today, is false or simply made up, he said.

Even so, Slaven said many sitting board members are more enthusiastic than ever because their work, amid a public health crisis, has taken on new importance.

"You actually now know what you do is important. The decisions you make as an elected official have ramifications," he said.

Students sit in an algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school on Monday in Miami Lakes, Fla. Miami-Dade County public schools require students to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Marta Lavandier/AP hide caption

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Students sit in an algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school on Monday in Miami Lakes, Fla. Miami-Dade County public schools require students to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Marta Lavandier/AP

A Florida judge has ruled that school districts in the state can require students to wear masks. At least 10 school districts — including some in many of the largest cities — had been defying state rules set by Gov. Ron DeSantis banning mask mandates.

Judge John Cooper ruled on a lawsuit brought by parents who say DeSantis overstepped his authority when his administration said school districts couldn't order students to wear masks. DeSantis had warned that "there will be consequences" for districts that defied the ban.

Ruling from the bench at the conclusion of a five-day trial, Cooper said that face mask mandates that follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are "reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion in this country." He found that the DeSantis administration violated the law when it banned school districts from requiring masks.

Following an order from the governor, Florida's Health and Education departments issued rules barring school districts from requiring students to wear face masks without allowing their parents to opt out. DeSantis said face mask mandates violate a Florida law that says parents have a right to make educational and health care decisions for their children.

Cooper said that in issuing the executive order and rules banning face mask mandates, DeSantis ignored a provision of the law that said school districts are allowed to take actions that are "reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest."

The judge said he would issue an injunction preventing the DeSantis administration from taking any action against school districts with face mask mandates. The state Board of Education has said it plans to withhold funds from the first two school districts that adopted face mask mandates in Alachua and Broward counties.

In court this week, lawyers for the parents say DeSantis' order violates a constitutional requirement that districts operate schools that are safe and secure. The state maintains parents have the ultimate authority to decide what's best for their kids. The judge's ruling allows school districts to require masks.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes his mask off as he prepares to speak during a press conference at the Hard Rock Stadium testing site in Miami Gardens, Fla., in May 2020. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes his mask off as he prepares to speak during a press conference at the Hard Rock Stadium testing site in Miami Gardens, Fla., in May 2020.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Noting that the coronavirus — and particularly the delta variant — is highly contagious and sometimes fatal to children, Cooper urged people to take a step back, "We will not solve any issue if we can't sit down and work together and take positions recognizing what's going on is not some recent imposition or some attack on the country."

The coronavirus and the delta variant have ripped across Florida in recent months (an elementary school in Vero Beach shut down on Friday until after Labor Day). More people have been infected and hospitalized of COVID-19 than at any point during the pandemic. The number of deaths, about 242 a day, is also near a record level.

The pandemic — among other things — has taken a toll on children. The Biden administration is trying to address that with new funding for mental health awareness, training and treatment. Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images hide caption

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Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

The pandemic — among other things — has taken a toll on children. The Biden administration is trying to address that with new funding for mental health awareness, training and treatment.

Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

As students head back into another pandemic school year, the Biden administration has announced nearly $85 million in funding for mental health awareness, training, and treatment.

The funding includes $10.7 million in American Rescue Plan funds from the Health Resources and Services Administration for the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access Program, which trains primary care providers to treat and refer kids for mental health issues. Another $74.2 million in grants is being distributed from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to raise awareness about youth mental health issues and train school personnel and programs that coordinate treatment for young people with emotional disorders.

"We know what's coming," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said while announcing the funding at Children's Hospital New Orleans on Friday. "The wave of stress, the mental strain, the disorientation and disassociation that so many of our children are feeling today — they're going to need help, and not just from their parents and their loved ones, they're going to need help from us all."

Since the start of the pandemic, emergency departments around the country have seen a proportional rise in children showing up in the midst of mental health crises. Pediatricians and child and adolescent psychologists and psychiatrists have seen more kids with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thinking and attempts over the past year.

And now students are going back into classrooms, a transition that can be "difficult not only for the kids, but also for the families, as well as the teachers, the educators and the systems of care," says Dr. Warren Ng, president-elect for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Kids are resilient, but they need support."

Ng is positive about the new investment in the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access Program because it meets kids where they are, "whether that's in their schools or whether that's in the pediatric primary care practices," he says. With Friday's announcement, the program is expanding from 21 states to 40 states, D.C., and several territories.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Xavier Becerra, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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"The pediatric access programs allow us to be able to optimize our expertise as child and adolescent psychiatrists," he explains. First of all, he says there aren't nearly enough child psychiatrists to treat all the children who need help. Also, "because of stigma, there are some families that will never come, at least not easily, to see a child or adolescent psychiatrist or a mental health provider, but they trust their pediatricians, and that's a relationship that we can leverage to help have that dialogue around your child having anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts and actions."

Another program included in the announcement is Project AWARE, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education. The project is distributing $54.3 million in grants to help state and local governments raise awareness about mental health issues among school-age kids and to train school personnel to detect mental health issues and connect students who need help to services.

The final slate of grants comes from the Children's Mental Health Initiative, which focuses on community-based services for children and adolescents with serious behavioral health issues. Eleven grant recipients will receive $19.8 million in the first year of funding.

"It's a great first start, from our perspective, and certainly an acknowledgment of the challenges and the problems," says Amy Knight, president of the Children's Hospital Association, which recently launched a campaign to raise awareness about the pandemic's impact on the mental health of children. But, she adds, "we do think there will need to be some legislative action as well" in order to address the problem in the long run.

Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Oh. describes the funding announcement as "exactly aligned with key targets for investment – teleconsultation, primary care, [and] schools, with a focus on consultation and training so that we increase the workforce and point-of-care access for kids in those settings."

Overall, Ng thinks the amount of funding "is a step in the right direction, but doesn't get us to the destination," he says. After years of underinvestment in child mental health, "you need to invest and build up the rest of the care system that provides urgent/crisis care, intensive care, comprehensive targeted treatment, and long term care."

In other words, "more is definitely needed," he says.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday Marta Lavandier/AP hide caption

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday

Marta Lavandier/AP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The attorney for parents suing to overturn Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order banning strong student mask mandates told a judge Thursday that it violates the authority of school districts to decide health issues on their campuses — something the governor's lawyer strongly disputed.

Craig Whisenhunt told Circuit Judge John C. Cooper that DeSantis is endangering children by not letting districts follow guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that children be masked at school.

He pointed to Florida's skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since the delta variant took hold in June, including among children. Several Florida children's hospitals have recently reported that they have more COVID patients than any time previously.

"Despite that reality, despite all of the science, the governor has sought to insert himself into matters of local health concerns and impede the ability of school boards to do what they are constitutionally mandated to do, which is to operate and control their schools," Whisenhunt told the judge. The Tallahassee hearing, concluding a four-day trial, was held online because of the pandemic.

But Michael Abel, an attorney representing DeSantis and the state, argued there are widely divergent opinions among doctors over whether masks stop the disease's spread, particularly at schools. Given that, the governor has the authority to side with parents who believe it is their right to decide what is best for their children and not school boards or other parents, Abel argued.

"Parents know their own children better than their teachers know them. Better than their children's doctors know them. Better than school administrators know them. Better than school district representatives know them," he said. "And they definitely know their children better than the other parents of the children in their class."

Cooper's decision, which he expects to issue Friday, will, for now, decide the legality of strict mask mandates imposed in 10 of the state's 67 countywide school districts, including most of the largest. Defying the governor and the state Board of Education, the districts have said students must wear masks in class unless their parents provide a note from a doctor. The districts represent about half of the state's 2.8 million public school students.

DeSantis has said districts may only impose a mask mandate if parents can opt their child out with a note from themselves. A few districts have done that, but most districts have left it up to parents. Both sides have indicated that if they lose, they will appeal Cooper's decision to a higher court.

The hearing comes as DeSantis threatened two districts, Broward and Alachua, and their boards with more drastic but unspecified punishments if they don't revoke their mandates. The districts, which cover Fort Lauderdale and Gainesville, have said they will not back down. The state has already threatened to withhold funding equal to the two district's school board salaries, an amount that would be less than 1% of the districts' budgets.

"That will happen very soon," DeSantis said of the increased penalties during an Orlando news conference. "And then I know there's parents who've had their rights taken away who are going to pursue legal action."

DeSantis has not yet gone after the other eight districts that have imposed strong mandates, including those that cover Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach.

During Thursday's closing arguments, Whisenhunt said the governor's order against mask mandates is different than an earlier pandemic program through which DeSantis gave districts extra money if they went back to in-person classes. Courts upheld that program, something DeSantis' lawyers have cited in this trial, but Whisenhunt said this is different because he is punishing districts that defy him.

"What we have now is a directive from the governor to impose a restriction on school boards' ability to do their job under the threat of a loss of funding," Whisenhunt said. "He is no longer tempting them with a carrot; he is beating the school boards down with a stick."

He said that while DeSantis argues he is protecting the rights of parents who don't want their children to wear masks, he is also violating the rights of those parents who believe that masks protect their children. Most doctors say masks primarily prevent the wearer from expelling the virus, giving protection to others.

"Our parents are being forced to choose between their child's right to an education and their child's right to be safe," Whisenhunt said.

Abel argued that Florida has an educational hierarchy in which districts do have substantial autonomy, but the governor and Legislature can impose laws and rules restricting their discretion. DeSantis and the state board have decided, he said, that parents have the ultimate authority over their child's health care, including whether they should wear a mask.

Parents, Abel said, have "the fundamental right to direct the upbringing and the education and health care and mental health of their minor children."

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Back To School: Live Updates

Following the news as students return to in-person learning.