Over 71% of Lebanon’s population risks losing access to safe water – UNICEF

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations warned on Friday that more than four million people in Lebanon, including one million refugees risked losing access to safe water as shortages of funding, fuel and supplies affect water pumping.

“UNICEF estimates that most water pumping will gradually cease across the country in the next four to six weeks,” a statement by the U.N. body said.

Lebanon is battling an economic meltdown that has propelled more than half of its population into poverty and seen its currency lose over 90% of its value in less than two years.

The financial crisis has translated into severe shortages of basic goods such as fuel and medicine as dollars run dry.

UNICEF said that should the public water supply system collapse, water costs could jump by 200% a month as water would be secured from private water suppliers.

The U.N. agency said it needed $40 million a year to secure the minimum levels of fuel, chlorine, spare parts and maintenance required to keep critical systems operational.

“Unless urgent action is taken, hospitals, schools and essential public facilities will be unable to function,” UNICEF Representative in Lebanon, Yukie Mokuo, was quoted as saying in the statement.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan; editing by Grant McCool)

Iowa joins U.S. states forbidding COVID-19 mask mandates in schools

(Reuters) – Iowa joined a handful of other U.S. states on Thursday in passing a law that forbids cities, counties and local school districts from requiring people to wear face masks that protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the measure into law just hours after it was approved by the state legislature. Texas and Florida, which also have Republican governors, have passed similar measures.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own healthcare decisions,” Reynolds said in a statement.

A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a mask in most settings because the chance of them catching or transmitting the airborne coronavirus is so low. But it still advised face coverings be worn in schools, medical settings and public transit.

The decision by Texas, Florida and Iowa to ignore some of the guidance comes after a year in which many conservative political leaders have cast mask mandates as an erosion of individual liberty rather than a public health issue.

Some Democrat-led states, such as New York and Connecticut, have adopted the CDC advice and said vaccinated people are no longer bound by mask mandates, though unvaccinated people must still wear them if they cannot distance themselves from others. Those states also have not stopped individual businesses from requiring visitors to wear masks.

In his Tuesday executive order, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said schools must scrap any mask requirements by June 4. However, public hospitals and state jails may still impose mask requirements, the order said.

On Wednesday, the Utah legislature passed a bill forbidding public schools and state universities from requiring masks, which now heads to the governor to be signed into law.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Texas governor bars mask mandates for schools, other government entities

(Reuters) -Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered all government entities in the state, including school districts, to lift mask mandates by week’s end, though existing guidelines for face-coverings in schools may remain in effect through June 4.

Abbott’s executive order puts Texas at odds with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending that students in schools across the United States wear masks for the 2020-2021 academic year because not all will be inoculated against the coronavirus.

Abbott said Texas was making strides against the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccinations, antibody therapeutics and voluntary health-safety practices “utilized by Texans in our communities,” leaving government mask requirements no longer necessary.

“We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” he said in a statement announcing the executive order.

Abbott and many other Republican politicians have cast mask mandates as an imposition on personal freedoms but nevertheless grudgingly required face coverings at the height of the pandemic as hospitalizations and deaths surged out of control.

Texas lifted its state-imposed mask mandate 10 weeks ago but sued officials in Austin, the state’s capital city, for refusing to go along with the lifting of those restrictions.

Abbott said that beginning Friday, local governments or officials that attempt to impose a mask mandate or other restriction in defiance of his latest executive order barring compulsory face-coverings would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

Public school districts are given more time to comply, but after June 4, “no student, teacher, parent or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus,” his announcement said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio)

U.S. vaccinated 600,000 12-15 year old’s last week

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) -The United States administered COVID-19 vaccinations to around 600,000 children ages 12 to 15 last week after regulators cleared Pfizer Inc’s and BioNTech’s shots for use in that age group, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a media call on Tuesday.

In total, more than 4 million people under 17 have been vaccinated in the United States so far, she added. Top U.S. infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said he expects that by the end of 2021 the United States will have enough safety data to vaccinate children of any age.

U.S. regulators last week authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in children as young as 12. Most states began issuing shots to children last Thursday but some, including Georgia, started sooner.

Pfizer’s shot is the first to be cleared in the United States for children 12 to 15. Vaccinating younger ages is considered important for getting children back into schools safely. U.S. President Joe Biden has asked states to make the vaccine available to younger adolescents immediately.

The vaccine has been available under an emergency use authorization to people as young as 16 in the United States since December.

Most children with COVID-19 develop only mild symptoms or no symptoms. Yet children remain at risk of becoming seriously ill, and they can spread the virus.

Widely vaccinating 12- to 18-year old’s could allow U.S. schools and summer camps to relax masking and social distancing measures suggested by the CDC.

Fauci also said on Tuesday that existing COVID-19 shots probably also protect against the new variant of the coronavirus first found in India, which has been battling the world’s biggest jump in COVID-19 infections.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. CDC panel backs COVID-19 vaccine now cleared for adolescents

By Michael Erman and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) -U.S. states are set to begin using the vaccine from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE to inoculate younger adolescents against COVID-19 after advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backed the plan in a unanimous vote on Wednesday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized the vaccine for children aged 12 to 15, offering relief to parents eager to get their children back to schools and summer camps, and the action by the CDC group is an important, but not required, final seal of federal regulatory approval.

Some states, including Georgia, Delaware and Arkansas, began offering the vaccine to younger teens on Tuesday.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which provides recommendations to the CDC, voted 14-0 to back the vaccine, after reviewing trial evidence that showed no one in the 12-15 age group who received the vaccine got COVID-19, and there were no cases of Bell’s Palsy or severe allergic reactions.

Moreover, the vaccine produced robust antibody responses in the age group and showed 100% efficacy in the trial, with no cases of symptomatic COVID-19 among the fully vaccinated adolescents.

“This will provide protection for 12 to 15 year old’s,” said Dr. Henry Bernstein, a member of the advisory committee and professor of pediatrics at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “It will decrease transmission within their family. It will contribute to community immunity, and it allows the kids to more safely go back to camps this summer, and back for in-person school.”

About a third of all Americans have been fully-vaccinated according to the CDC data. But the pace of vaccination has slowed in the recent weeks.

The rollout of a vaccine for adolescents should help further limit the spread of the virus at a time when more contagious variants are circulating, and could shorten the road to normalcy for Americans.

“I think we should be in full school, full in-person school, in the fall,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a CNBC health summit on Tuesday.

Children have been considered by health officials as being at a lower risk for severe COVID-19, but they can still spread the virus. More than 1.5 million cases have been reported among 12- to 17-year-olds, and as more adults become vaccinated, adolescents are accounting for a higher proportion of total cases.

Adjusted for underreporting, the working group estimated 22.2 million U.S. COVID-19 infections in those aged 5 to 17.

Pfizer is running a separate trial testing the vaccine in children as young as 6-months-old, and has said it expects data on its use in 2- to 11-year-olds in September. The 2,260 participants in the 12-to-15 age group – half of whom were given placebo – were tested as an expansion of Pfizer’s more than 46,000-person trial.

The committee will hear from Pfizer about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in adolescents and will consider the views of a handful of CDC officials on its implementation.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Caroline Humer, Peter Henderson and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. backs distance of three feet between students, which may help schools open

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Friday updated its COVID-19 mitigation guidance to narrow the acceptable distance between students who are wearing masks to at least three feet from at least six feet, potentially easing the path for schools that have struggled to reopen under previous recommendations.

The new recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a boost to the Biden administration’s goal of reopening in-person learning for millions of public school students without sparking outbreaks of the virus.

Many schools continue to teach students remotely more than a year after the novel coronavirus prompted widespread closures across the United States.

The new guidance applies to students from kindergarten through high school and in areas with low, moderate, and substantial community transmission of COVID-19. Middle and high school students in communities with high levels of COVID-19 should stay six feet apart unless their school day contact can be limited to a single small group of students and staff.

Students should continue to maintain six feet of distance when interacting with teachers and other school staff and when eating, the CDC said.

The CDC has been under pressure to relax its guidance to schools and Director Rochelle Walensky said this week that the agency was looking at data in part from a recent study in Massachusetts which suggested tighter spacing had not impacted COVID-19 transmission.

Many schools do not have the space in classrooms to maintain six feet between students, and outside of the United States public health agency recommendations for social distancing start at about three feet and range to more than six.

The guidance urged schools to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing of students and said such regular use of screening tests offers added protection for schools that require fewer than six feet of separation.

School districts should expand screenings for students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, and consider universal screening prior to athletic events.

The agency continues to recommend quarantines for anyone who has been within six feet of someone sick with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

The White House said Wednesday said it would allocate $10 billion to states to support COVID-19 screening testing for teachers, staff and students to assist schools resume in-person instruction.

The CDC said students are required to wear masks on school buses and any other forms of public transit they use to get to school. The agency issued an order in February requiring travelers to wear masks when using public transit.

The Biden administration has urged states to vaccinate teachers and childcare workers, with the goal of getting all of them inoculated by the end of March.

New York City schools perpetuate racism, lawsuit contends

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A group of New York City students filed a sweeping lawsuit on Tuesday that accuses the United States’ largest public school system of perpetuating racism by using a deeply flawed admissions process for selective programs that favors white students.

The lawsuit, which was brought in state court in Manhattan by several prominent civil rights attorneys, argues that a “rigged system” begins sorting children academically when they are as young as 4 years old, using criteria that disproportionately benefit more affluent, white students.

As a result, minority students are often denied an opportunity to gain access to more selective programs, from elementary to high school, and are instead relegated to failing schools that exacerbate existing inequities, the lawsuit contends.

“Nearly every facet of the New York City public education system operates not only to prop up, but also to affirmatively reproduce, the artificial racial hierarchies that have subordinated people of color for centuries in the United States,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint asks a judge to order the school system to eliminate its current admissions screening process for selective programs, including gifted and talented programs and more academically rigorous middle and high schools.

“For many Black and Latinx eighth graders, entire swaths of high schools and programs are functionally off-limits,” the lawsuit alleges.

The city’s public school system is the country’s largest, with approximately 1 million students, and has long been seen as deeply segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Close to three-quarters of Black and Latino students attend schools that have less than 10% white students, while more than a third of white students attend schools with majority white populations, according to data collected by the City Council.

Two years ago, de Blasio attempted to eliminate the admissions exam for elite specialized high schools, but the state legislature, which has authority over the exam, rejected his proposal.

In a statement, Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the city’s education department, noted the de Blasio administration has recently made some changes, including using teacher evaluations rather than a standardized test to identify gifted 4-year-olds and temporarily suspending middle-school admissions screens.

“This administration has taken bold, unprecedented steps to advance equity in our admissions policies,” she said. “Our persistent work to drive equity for New York City families is ongoing, and we will review the suit.”

The lawsuit, however, argued those moves do not go far enough to address the problem.

At a news conference, de Blasio would not specifically comment on pending litigation. But he agreed that specialized high school admissions are “broken” and said the city needs a new system for its gifted and talented program.

The plaintiffs include IntegrateNYC, a youth-led nonprofit devoted to integrating the school system.

Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, is a lead attorney, along with civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and law professors from Yale University, Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The law firm Sidley Austin is also representing the plaintiffs.

In addition to admissions criteria, the lawsuit also faults the school system’s curriculum, arguing that students of color learn that “civilization is equated with whiteness” and that history is taught from a Eurocentric point of view.

While the school system is majority Black and Latino, most teachers and administrators are white, the lawsuit notes.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Biden to boost funds for COVID-19 tests in schools, shelters: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to provide $650 million to expand COVID-19 testing for elementary and middle schools, as well as homeless shelters and other underserved congregate settings, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday.

It will also spend $815 million to increase U.S. manufacturing of testing supplies and $200 million for virus genome sequencing, the statement said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

U.S. CDC recommends schools reopen with universal masking and other rigid health protocols

By Gabriella Borter and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued new guidance for U.S. schools to reopen, recommending universal mask-wearing and physical distancing as key mitigation strategies to getting children back in the classroom.

The guidelines, which also emphasize the need for facility-cleaning, personal hygiene and contact tracing, are intended to give school districts a road map to bring the nation’s 55 million public school students back to classrooms without sparking COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We believe with the strategies we have put forward that there will be limited to no transmission in schools if followed,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters, noting that the CDC was not mandating that schools reopen.

The agency also said school reopenings should not be conditional on teachers’ access to COVID-19 vaccines, but strongly recommended U.S. states prioritize teachers and school staff for vaccination.

School reopenings have been the focus of labor disputes between teachers unions and their districts in major U.S. cities. In Chicago this week, after months of negotiations that included threats of a lock-out and strike, the teachers union and district reached agreement on a safety plan.

President Joe Biden promised to reopen most schools within 100 days of taking office on Jan. 20. On Sunday, he said the problems arising from the continued closure of schools, including children’s mental health struggles and the exodus of parents from the workforce, have amounted to a national emergency.

Just 44% of U.S. school districts were offering fully in-person learning as of December and 31% were operating all remotely, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which surveyed 477 of the nation’s nearly 13,000 school districts. Other districts have employed a hybrid learning model where students attend some school days in-person and some virtually.

The CDC’s phased mitigation strategy is intended to be flexible depending on the level of COVID-19 transmission in a school’s community.

In areas where the COVID-19 positive test rate is below 5% and there are fewer than nine new cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, schools can fully reopen and safely relax social distancing measures as long as masks are worn, Walensky said. In areas of high transmission, the agency is urging 6 feet of separation in classrooms and weekly testing of students, teachers and staff.

Recent studies have shown that in-person learning has not been associated with increased community transmission, especially in elementary schools, the CDC guidance noted.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Boca Raton, Florida, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)

CDC to issue new COVID-19 guidelines for schools on Friday: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to issue new guidelines for U.S. schools reopening on Friday, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said.

Reopening schools is a top priority for the administration of President Joe Biden, who has stressed he wants it done safely and has supported vaccinations for teachers.

The top U.S. health safety agency has been working on a new set of guidelines to meet the challenges that school districts face across the country.

“Tomorrow, the CDC is going to roll out their operating plan to give school districts, local communities, the guidance they need to know to begin to do that and to begin to do that aggressively,” Slavitt said on Thursday.

Pressure to reopen or expand in-person learning for students has been building across the United States in recent weeks as the impact of remote learning on education and family life has become more apparent. The debate over how and when to safely reopen has become heated in many school districts.

Slavitt said he understood why some parents were impatient to reopen and stressed that the CDC was being very thorough in formulating its guidelines on masking, social distancing and other issues.

“I can assure you of one thing: There’s no debate over whether to open schools here. There’s a debate over how,” Slavitt said. “And if it were as simple as ‘open all the schools,’ they’d all be open by now.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Bernadette Baum)