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)

Biden believes U.S. teachers are priority for vaccinations, White House says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden believes America’s teachers should be a priority in getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, but he will listen to scientists’ recommendations on a comprehensive approach to reopening schools, the White House said on Tuesday.

“He believes that teachers should be a priority on the vaccination list – he has supported that,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said in an interview with MSNBC.

“He believes that teachers should get their vaccines, but he’s listening to the science, and there are a number of important steps that we need to take to ensure that schools can open and open safely,” she said. “Vaccines are one piece of it.”

Official guidance for reopening American schools will likely come later in the week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Bedingfield said.

School reopenings have become a hot topic across the nation. District officials, teachers, parents and health professionals have been debating when and how to safely reopen for millions of students who have been taking classes remotely for 11 months since the pandemic closed schools last spring.

Educators in major cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, on Monday called for strong COVID-19 safety protocols in their classrooms as those and other districts pushed to reopen.

“There are a number of important steps that we need to take to ensure that schools can open and open safely. Vaccines are one piece of it,” Bedingfield said. “There needs to be masking, there needs to be room for social distancing, so those mitigation measures are just as important.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Biden’s immense economic challenge: Putting 10 million people back to work

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – President Joe Biden is presenting his plan on Friday for addressing one of the greatest challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic – how to get millions of out-of-work Americans back on the job.

The labor market regained some minor ground in January when the economy added 49,000 jobs, according to a report released Friday by the Labor Department. But the report showed labor market growth is stalling, doing little to close the huge gap created by the pandemic

“At that rate it’s going to take 10 years before we get to full employment,” Biden said Friday morning from the White House.

Roughly half of the 22 million jobs lost at the height of the pandemic have been recouped. But that still leaves a hole of about 10 million jobs, disproportionately ones held by women and minorities in low-wage roles.

Here is a look at the people who may need the most help as the economy heals:

MINORITIES HIT HARDEST

As the economy reopened last year from widespread shutdowns, many office workers adjusted to working remotely and other industries called people back to their jobs.

But many Black, Hispanic and Asian workers who were overrepresented in the low-wage occupations most affected by the pandemic, including servers, bartenders, cooks and housekeepers, are still unemployed.

The overall unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% in January. But within that rate are huge racial disparities – over 9% of Black workers are unemployed, versus less than 6% of white workers:

WOMEN PUSHED OUT

Before the pandemic, the share of women either working or looking for work was rising, thanks to a record-long economic expansion.

The crisis reversed those gains, in part because the closures of schools and child care centers left working mothers with a weaker support system.

Some 2.5 million woman dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, compared to 1.8 million men, according to data from the Labor Department.

Biden says he wants to help more women get back to work through policies that reopen schools safely and make childcare more affordable.

SECTOR BY SECTOR

Businesses that rely on travel or on people spending time close to each other indoors have rebounded the slowest, and many people who made their living by staffing kitchens, mixing drinks or cleaning hotel rooms are still out of work.

Employment in leisure and hospitality was down 23% in January from pre-pandemic levels in February 2020, more than any other industry.

Economists expect many of those jobs to return after coronavirus vaccines are distributed widely and consumers feel more comfortable spending money in restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues. But it’s not clear whether employment will return completely to previous levels.

LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYED

Job searches have stretched on for some people, including many in the leisure and hospitality industry.

The “long-term unemployed,” or those who have been out of work for at least six months, now make up about 40% of the total unemployed, or about 4 million people, up from about 20% before the pandemic.

Research shows people who are long-term unemployed can have a harder time finding new jobs, putting them at greater risk of facing pay cuts or of dropping out of the labor market.

Biden wants to create federally subsidized jobs in healthcare, clean energy and other fields that could help the long-term unemployed move into new roles.

ACROSS THE MAP

Designing federal policies to help the out of work may be especially challenging because job losses vary widely from one state to the next.

Employment in Idaho, Utah and Kansas had fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels by December. But the situation was more dire in New York and tourism-dependent Nevada and Hawaii.

This could lead to wide disagreements among lawmakers about how much more aid is needed to nurse the economy, and the labor market, back to health.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Howard Schneider. Editing by Heather Timmons and Andrea Ricci)

New York City changes admissions at many schools to ease racial segregation

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City is overhauling how it admits students to some of its most competitive public schools to make them less segregated by race and wealth, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.

Some selective Manhattan high schools, particularly in wealthy neighborhoods, are allowed to give children who live nearby priority in admissions, which has tended to put children living in poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage. These so-called geographic priorities will be ended over the coming two years, making it easier for children from anywhere to apply for a spot, the mayor said at a news conference.

The city will also end “screening” practices at hundreds of middle schools that admit students based on a mixture of grades, test results, attendance rates.

These practices led to disproportionately high admissions of white and Asian students and fewer Black and Latino students in the best-performing schools in the nation’s largest and most diverse education system, which serves some 1.1 million children. Admissions will instead be determined by a random lottery.

“We have been doing this work for seven years to more equitably redistribute resources throughout our school system,” de Blasio told reporters. “I think these changes will improve justice and fairness.”

Although calls to overhaul school admissions long predate the novel coronavirus pandemic, the disruption caused by school closures to stem the spread of COVID-19 was a factor in the overhaul: for example, some state exams were canceled and attendance rates became more difficult to track, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told reporters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes but said they should have come sooner, and called for the permanent removal of screening at the high-school level.

“It should not have taken a pandemic to finally remove discriminatory admissions screens for children applying to middle school and to remove the egregious district priorities that concentrate wealth and resources into a few schools,” NYCLU organizer Toni Smith-Thompson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown)

To reopen or not to reopen – That is the fraught question for U.S. schools

By Kristina Cooke, Benjamin Lesser and M.B. Pell

(Reuters) – After a two-week deluge of calls and messages from parents – and at least one death threat – the school board in Chandler, Arizona, called a special meeting this fall.

The board would revisit its decision, prompted by the coronavirus, to temporarily close local campuses and offer all classes online.

Parents, teachers and others poured out their thoughts in 1,100 public comments posted online before the September meeting. “If our schools do not open in person I will yank both my boys OUT and take them to another school district!!!” one parent wrote.

Many teachers assailed the district, which serves about 44,000 students near Phoenix, for wavering. “You look weak to the public; you look unconcerned for safety to your employees,” wrote one instructor. Ultimately, the board backtracked, voting 3-2 to start reopening school buildings. Eight-six percent of students returned to campus.

Across the United States, district leaders face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed. Many parents are balking at online instruction, seeing it as inferior to classroom learning and disruptive to life at home and work. Other parents worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely amid a raging pandemic.

At the same time, many teachers, some backed by powerful unions, say they are not comfortable teaching in person, fearing kids may infect them with a virus generally more dangerous for adults. Union leaders complain of inconsistent COVID-19 testing and safety standards.

Districts are caught in the middle, struggling to accommodate both families and faculty as they juggle the separate challenges of in-class and virtual instruction. Meanwhile, a new wave of infections has arrived, sending caseloads in parts of the United States soaring out of control.

“Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it’s the wrong decision,” said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educational services at Chandler.

Adding to the stress on everyone involved is unpredictability. Plans can change suddenly depending on the vicissitudes of the virus and officials’ tolerance for risk. New York City, with the largest school system in the country, epitomizes the problem. Six weeks after opening schools to optional in-person attendance, the mayor reversed course last week, closing campuses through at least Nov. 30. Parents and caregivers for more than 300,000 students had no choice but to adapt on the fly.

Reuters surveyed 217 districts in 30 states, which serve about 2.4 million students, to determine how jurisdictions large and small are coping with the question of reopening campuses. The broad survey began in late September, and Reuters conducted more detailed reporting through mid-November, focusing on 12 districts serving a combined 1 million students. The New York City school system did not respond to the survey.

Among the findings:

* The vast majority of the districts settled on offering a mix of in-person and remote learning this fall. Five percent said they were remote only and 5% in-person only. Some, like Chandler, changed plans after opening. The Jefferson County School District near Denver, for instance, is temporarily switching most students to all-remote learning this month amid the surge of cases in Colorado.

Most districts that provide in-person instruction require preventive measures such as masks and social distancing. Some have tried a little creativity: In Premont, Texas, a rural community about 70 miles southwest of Corpus Christi, administrators gave the youngest elementary school students Hula Hoops to help them keep their distance from others in hallways.

* Given the option, the districts said most parents want their kids to go back to campus at least part-time. About 70% of parents and guardians chose a learning model that includes some classroom instruction. Several district leaders told Reuters that virtual instruction has led to “learning loss”, or a regression in skills, among some students. But districts said they have to balance that concern against teachers’ desire for safety.

* Adapting to the pandemic has been costly. As of late September, the districts collectively had spent more than $340 million on COVID-related expenses including new laptops and internet hotspots for remote learners, as well as improved building ventilation and extra cleaning supplies for classrooms.

Some districts have been able to cover costs through the federal CARES Act, the initial relief package for COVID-19 passed in March, or supplemental state funding. But many have been forced to raid their regular budgets and reserves, creating the potential for cutbacks later affecting anything from textbook purchases to payroll.

* About half the districts reported problems keeping their schools properly staffed, in part because teachers and other workers on campus must go into quarantine if potentially exposed to COVID-19. In Storm Lake Community School District in rural Iowa, Superintendent Stacey Cole recalled brainstorming in October with an elementary school principal who worried she lacked enough staff to get through the week. As of November 16, the staff was down about 10%, with five positive cases among adults and 30 in quarantine.

In a normal year, staffers report to work even when they have a cold, Cole said. “Now we say, ‘Don’t come in, get a COVID test,’” she said. But it takes as long as eight days to get back test results there, she said – sidelining those staffers in the meantime.

* Only about two-thirds of the 217 districts said they collect data on positive tests among students and staff. Most of those reported few or no COVID-19 cases during the first weeks of the school year. Since then, several, including the Dallas Independent School District, have reported surges, though the numbers there still account for less than 1% of students and employees overall.

The number of reported cases in Arizona’s Chandler district has remained low since students returned to campuses. Fewer than 1% of staff, and half a percent of students, tested positive as of mid-November.

In most instances, it is unclear whether cases originate in schools or somewhere else.

Most children infected with the coronavirus have mild or no symptoms, but kids can spread the virus to others, including adults and other family members, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After members of her soccer team tested positive for coronavirus, 14-year-old Maddie Weiser of the Jefferson County district said she worried she might have passed on the virus unknowingly to others at school, or to her grandmother. “It’s so hard for me to think about it. If this is this stressful for me, it must be 800 times worse for my teachers,” Weiser said.

A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in four teachers and school staff has conditions putting them at heightened risk for serious illness from COVID-19, though the researchers said that is about the same percentage as in other workplaces.

“Where’s the data that prove that we are not risking our health and safety or even our lives by coming to work every day?” Mamie Huff, who has taught in Dallas elementary schools for 24 years, asked her district’s school board on Oct 22. “This is heartbreaking. Because I love my students. I love my school. I love my job. But what I don’t love is that I have no true control over my own health and safety.”

‘GREAT INTENTIONS’

Michael Hester, superintendent of the Batesville School District in rural Arkansas, captured the feelings of many school administrators during the fall term: “We count it as a blessing to even make it to Friday,” he said.

Hester said one of his greatest frustrations is the shifting rules coming down from the state. For instance, when the school year started in late August, the original plan was for the Arkansas Department of Health to conduct “contact tracing” on any positive coronavirus cases among students and staff on campuses. That means finding and notifying everyone who may have been exposed to the virus by an infected person. But within weeks of reopening, Hester said, that responsibility was largely shifted to the individual districts.

Dr. Joel Tumlison, who focuses on infectious disease outbreaks for the health department, acknowledged that officials had “some problems initially” doing timely contact tracing when schools reopened, requiring districts to assist with the work.

“It’s a big task, we recognize that,” Tumlison said.

Contact tracing is just one example of the challenges districts now confront that fall well outside the realm of traditional schooling. Others are enforcing mask and social distancing requirements and planning around the individual quarantine schedules of infected students and staff.

In the Batesville district, which had about 3,400 students and a cumulative total of 95 cases among adults and kids as of mid-November, some families have had to keep students home for multiple 14-day quarantine periods, Hester said.

Then, in the case of virtual instruction, there is the dreaded problem of “learning loss.” When students in Dallas, Texas, returned to school in September, the district found through testing that there had been a significant deterioration in students’ math skills in the second half of the last school year when all kids were attending online.

“This concerns us significantly,” said Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who also acknowledged some teachers were “scared to death” to return to campuses. “Math is sequential, you have to have (grasped) the prerequisites before you can learn the next skill.”

Maren Butcher, the mother of a high school sophomore and a third grader at Chandler in Arizona, said remote learning was a disaster for her children. “I watched the spark for school slowly die in my older son. We felt like we were picking him up with a spatula every day.”

After he went back in person, his motivation improved, the classes were more rigorous and he’s “been able to advance more academically,” she said.

In Texas’ rural Louise Independent School District, about a third of the roughly 500 students started the year with remote instruction.

Within weeks Garth Oliver, the district’s superintendent, started to see that students working remotely were struggling to keep up with their peers.

“You call the parents and they say, ‘They have been on the computer all day’ – but they are playing games,” Oliver said.

So on Sept. 22, Oliver sent a letter to district families announcing that the remote instruction would end the following week. “Everybody had great intentions but there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction with a professional educator,” Oliver said.

Only two families left the district afterward, he said.

A JUGGLING ACT

For the nation’s districts and teachers, there is no common playbook.

Districts, for instance, have different thresholds for when to close campuses, based on COVID-19 testing results. In New York City, schools were closed because the city’s positivity rate hit a 3% seven-day average, a standard set by the mayor. Elsewhere, the thresholds are much higher. And some districts don’t have thresholds at all.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, said both educators and parents would be more open to having students return to campuses if the federal government provided a well-funded reopening strategy with clear measures of how it’s working.

“That’s the issue, instead of pitting teachers against parents,” said Weingarten, who top Democrats see as a candidate for secretary of education in President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration.

Meanwhile, teachers struggle to adapt to ever-evolving directives that vary by district.

In some places, instructors must handle both face-to-face and online instruction. Some teach the two groups concurrently – juggling, for instance, technology glitches with classroom misconduct. Other districts split up their staff, assigning them to virtual or in-class instruction.

“We’ve been pulling off the impossible, teaching virtual and in-person classes at the exact same time,” Jennifer Lees, a teacher in Dallas, told her school district board on Oct. 22. “We’re exhausted, scared and stressed.”

Staffing shortages and budgetary constraints make matters worse.

After work dried up last spring, many substitute teachers opted to find other employment, said Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association, the Phoenix-area teachers’ union.

To cover COVID-related expenses, many districts received at least some federal CARES Act money, but the White House and congressional leaders have been unable to agree on a new relief package. And most states face budget deficits, limiting their ability to help.

Some districts also confront potentially costly lawsuits from parents of children with special needs, whose individualized education plans often weren’t designed for remote learning.

Another financial challenge comes when dissatisfied parents leave the district. State aid is often based, at least in part, on student attendance, so departures can decrease funding.

“A lot of these districts are hoping the federal government will come through at some point and make them whole,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA The School Superintendents Association. “If that doesn’t happen, a lot of school districts are going to be short.”

THE LOUDEST VOICES

Not all parents or teachers are of one mind about school reopening. But some voices are louder than others.

Even before the summer break began, the Chandler Education Association, the teachers’ union near Phoenix, made its opposition to in-person instruction known to the district.

Nash, the union’s president, armed herself with survey data to show the district that more than half of teachers who responded felt unsafe returning to campuses.

She told Reuters that a small but highly vocal group of parents drowned out instructors’ concerns.

But Chandler parent Butcher, the daughter of a teacher, said she opposed what she saw as the union’s steady pressure on the district to stay remote.

“The loudest voice,” she said, “was not the parents.”

In Grantham, New Hampshire, about 30 parents attended a school board meeting in October to call for a full school campus reopening. The group clapped loudly when people made points in favor of reopening and was “somewhat disrespectful” in its behavior, said Superintendent Sydney Leggett.

She said parents who wanted to stick with strictly virtual or hybrid instruction were not as well-represented at the meeting, held in the school gym, because they were worried about contracting the coronavirus.

After seeing parents argue on social media, she sent a letter to families asking them to be kind to one another. The district decided to open for four days a week, in person, starting in November. It also will continue to offer a remote option.

“I’m hoping when we come out of this we still have a good community feeling,” Leggett said. “It’s going to be work to make sure that this divisiveness doesn’t stick around.”

(Kristina Cooke reported from Los Angeles, Benjamin Lesser and M.B. Pell from New York City. Editing by Julie Marquis and Janet Roberts)

Sewage testing could protect schools, hospitals from COVID-19 outbreaks

By Allison Martell

TORONTO (Reuters) – Early in the pandemic, a few cities and countries around the world began testing sewage for evidence of the coronavirus, hoping to detect rising infections early.

Now some researchers are fine-tuning that strategy by moving upstream to test waste from single hospitals or other buildings, aiming to quickly pinpoint burgeoning COVID-19 outbreaks and stop them with testing and isolation.

While the virus primarily spreads through droplets expelled from the mouth and nose, it can also be shed via human waste.

Testing sewage is cheaper and less invasive than swabbing hundreds of people, and it could be done more frequently. With the virus again surging across much of the world, schools, hospitals and care homes badly need to catch new cases early.

“What we’re trying to do is identify outbreaks before they happen,” said Francis Hassard, a lecturer at Cranfield University, part of a project that started collecting samples at 20 London secondary schools last month.

Hassard’s UK government-funded team will expand sampling to at least 70 schools. The program is a research project, meant to test the approach, and is not yet a full-fledged surveillance system.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, researchers at the University of Calgary have been gathering samples from three local hospitals, including the site of a recent outbreak in which 12 people died.

The team was still refining their methods when that outbreak began. When they went back to test wastewater, they found the amount of coronavirus genetic material rose 580% as the virus spread, said Kevin Frankowski, executive director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets.

“We saw a very significant change,” said Frankowski. “It was really strong proof that this … approach works.”

The project shares data with Alberta Health Services, which runs the province’s hospitals. If levels spike again, they could respond by testing individuals or taking other steps to mitigate spread, depending on the situation, said Frankowski.

In the United States, professional services company GHD set up wastewater testing at a handful of university residences, and recently started advertising the service to long-term care homes, drawing significant interest, said Peter Capponi, a principal at GHD.

CLOSE TO THE SOURCE

So far, most sewage testing has been done at treatment plants. Dutch authorities publish a national statistic, based on samples from all over the country, and French authorities have cited similar data for months. The state of Ohio monitors water at treatment plants across the state.

However, it can take 24-to-36 hours for waste to arrive at a treatment plant, and heavy rain or industrial effluent can dilute samples.

When viral levels rise at a treatment plant, it is not always obvious what should be done. But when virus material suddenly appears in sewage leaving a single building, the path forward is more clear.

At the University of Arizona, for example, sewage from one residence turned positive on August 25. The next day, the university began testing students. Two tested positive and were isolated, heading off what could have been an outbreak, the school said in a release.

With most of these efforts in early stages, it is not yet clear how well the approach will work at scale.

Not every infected person sheds virus in their waste, and there is some disagreement among researchers on how early in the course of COVID-19 that shedding begins on average.

Human behavior can affect data collection. Do enough children use the bathroom at school to generate good data? The virus does not show up in urine, just solid waste.

There are also logistical issues.

“Buildings have multiple discharge points,” said GHD’s Capponi. “Some of them are not accessible. Some may show up on a design drawing, but were not constructed that way.”

Outside the controlled environment of a treatment plant, sewage is less uniform. Sampling equipment can get clogged with toilet paper and other debris, said Hassard.

And a single “grab” sample might miss the virus. The UK project collects throughout the school day.

Higher-tech auto-samplers can collect waste over a longer period, but are in increasingly short supply as more testing programs ramp up.

MilliporeSigma, a unit of Germany’s Merck KGaA, makes the Centricon P-70 filter used on some waste samples.

The company has doubled production, a spokeswoman said, after an “unprecedented surge in demand” from governments hoping to test for the virus.

(Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto; Edilting by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)