Coronavirus Today: Hope for high schools
Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Monday, March 8. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.
Jesuit High School has been teaching its students on campus for months, and screening them daily since October. That first day of screening was so chaotic that the principal called it “Black Monday.” About 40 active infections have turned up since then, though cases have dropped to zero in more recent weeks. Now things at the all-boys Catholic school in Sacramento have gotten considerably brighter.
For the record:
1:39 p.m. March 9, 2021A previous version of this newsletter reported that students, faculty and staff at Jesuit High School in Sacramento are tested for the coronavirus every day; they are tested twice a week. The newsletter also reported that school officials had identified 40 active infections in their first day of testing; they have identified a total of 40 infections since testing began in October.
With a carefully honed system of twice-weekly rapid-response testing for its teachers, staff and roughly 800 students, Jesuit is one of several parochial schools whose experience may serve as a road map for other secondary schools to follow as they navigate a path for reopening safely, my colleague Anita Chabria reports.
It’s been two months since Jesuit resumed full-time campus life, a move that followed a semester of half-time instruction. During that time, the school has been free from major coronavirus outbreaks. The success is especially encouraging because studies indicate that teenagers can transmit the coronavirus more easily than younger students.
“There were moments of incredible pride and incredible doubt,” said Michael Wood, Jesuit’s principal. “Now it’s all pride and being grateful that we didn’t let the initial doubt stop us.”
Jesuit’s COVID-19-proof system starts every morning in the parking lot, where students get tested for active infections. They then go into the gym, where they play pingpong and watch movies while they wait for the rapid-response results, which are delivered to their cellphones. If they receive an all-clear, a mostly normal day of classes follows. If a student is infected, the student is isolated.
The process requires extra staff and additional time. It takes about two hours for a dozen teachers and technicians from an urgent care center to process the test results.
It also takes money: Tests used to cost $25 per student, but that will soon drop to $5. Private schools also benefit from smaller systems free from state oversight and can avoid the types of disagreements among teachers unions, staff and parents that plagued some public school systems.
Teachers and parents within the Los Angeles Unified School District squabbled for months about the plan to reopen elementary schools, which were eligible to bring students back to campus last month as L.A. County coronavirus cases plummeted. But with United Teachers Los Angeles demanding that employees receive access to vaccines as well as enough time for maximum immunity to take effect before being required to return to their classrooms, elementary schools in the nation’s second-largest school system won’t reopen until mid-April.
LAUSD middle and high schools could now follow in late April, my colleague Howard Blume reports. Under L.A. County health rules, secondary schools could be eligible to open as soon as next week.
“Our goal is to do this as soon as possible and in the safest way possible,” Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday. “Not in any way possible, the safest way possible.”
To encourage reopenings, California is offering $2 billion to public schools that resume in-person classes in the coming weeks. For counties such as Los Angeles that are in the most restrictive purple tier, the plan is primarily focused on opening classrooms for students up to second grade. But in counties outside the purple tier, public schools can get the funds only if they resume in-person instruction for all elementary students and some upper grades.
Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn., said forcing quick openings with incentive funding may “penalize” communities where rates of transmission are still high, or where plans have already been put in place for later returns. The hardest-hit communities — especially those with high numbers of Latino or Black residents — tend to be the most hesitant about returning to in-person classes.
Many students who can only take classes via Zoom are falling behind, and declining mental health has been a major concern. But at Jesuit, simply returning to in-person classes wasn’t enough to heal the wounds the pandemic caused.
Wood, the high school’s principal, noticed that five days of strict rules was too much for the students who were still reeling from months of quarantine. Now Wednesdays are free from instruction. Recently, that meant an outdoor cornhole tournament on campus. Students still wore their masks outside.
By the numbers
California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:37 p.m. on Monday:
Californians are guaranteed three days of paid sick leave. That state minimum doesn’t seem that helpful these days, especially when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises COVID-19 patients to isolate for at least 10 days after showing symptoms.
Federal and state laws requiring most businesses to offer two weeks of paid leave during the pandemic expired on Jan. 1. Now the California Legislature is set to vote in the coming weeks on whether to reinstate the two-week obligation, my colleague Margot Roosevelt reports.
The prior requirements applied to workers who needed to isolate because they were infected with the coronavirus or quarantine because they were exposed to it. Not only do the state’s paid-leave bills cover these scenarios, but they also provide time off to get vaccinated and to care for sick relatives or children. The measures would apply retroactively to Jan. 1 and expire on Sept. 30.
The bills have drawn vocal responses from both sides. In January, 115 unions, community groups and social service nonprofits called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature to immediately expand paid sick days. Last month, 112 business groups offered a rebuttal.
Supporters argue that a lack of paid leave prompts people to continue working while sick, potentially spreading the virus and worsening the pandemic. Others argue that businesses are already struggling and can’t afford to foot another bill without help from the state. They add that employees have other ways to access paid leave, although some cover workers only if they are infected at their workplace.
Protecting workers is becoming even more important this week as L.A. County’s largest batch of COVID-19 vaccines puts the county on the cusp of a wider reopening, my colleagues Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II report.
Once California has administered 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to people living in the state’s most vulnerable communities, the state will relax the rules for moving out of the purple tier. As of Monday, those targeted communities have received 1.88 million doses.
When that target is reached, counties will be eligible for the red tier if their adjusted daily case rates do not exceed 10 new cases per 100,000 people. (The current threshold is 7 new cases per 100,000 people.) L.A., Orange and San Bernardino counties would have met the revised target last week.
Of the 312,000 vaccine doses expected to be delivered to L.A. County this week, 53,700 will be the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot that officials hope can help accelerate the state’s — and the nation’s — vaccination campaign. But L.A. city officials said they aren’t expecting to receive more J&J doses in the immediate future as production hasn’t yet kicked into high gear.
With supply constraints continuing to hinder California’s vaccine effort, state and local officials are still focused on maintaining equity. The state believed a partnership with Blue Shield of California would help it achieve that goal.
However, many counties are not interested in the insurance giant’s help, my colleague Melody Gutierrez reports.
None of California’s 58 counties have approved the contract yet, and officials from several counties — including L.A., Ventura and San Joaquin — are asking for a way out of the agreement.
“The hesitations and uncertainties span urban, suburban and rural parts of the state,” said Sarah Dukett, legislative advocate for the Rural County Representatives of California. “It’s not always the case that everyone is in the same boat.”
In a letter to Newsom asking for L.A. County’s exemption from the deal, county Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis and Chair Pro Tem Holly Mitchell wrote that Blue Shield officials “have not demonstrated they have an adequate understanding of the unique needs and features of Los Angeles County, its diverse population, and where our residents go for health care.”
Some county officials take issue with how Blue Shield requires all vaccine providers to use the state’s My Turn appointment system, which has been fraught with glitches and accessibility issues. One key complaint is that the scheduling system can’t set aside vaccine appointments for people living in underserved communities, even though that’s one of the state’s priorities.
See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker.
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Around the nation and the world
This week will see the one-year anniversary of when the country began widespread lockdowns to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a pivotal moment for President Biden, my colleagues Chris Megerian and Eli Stokes report, as he staked his presidency on ending the pandemic and restoring the economy.
Biden’s steady focus has earned praise in the polls. Seventy percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing on the pandemic, according to a recent poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs at the University of Chicago. The latest Gallup survey found that 6 out of 10 Americans believe the coronavirus crisis is abating.
Officials say adherence to public health guidelines, like wearing masks, helped turn the pandemic’s tide. A study from the CDC confirmed that masks helped slow the spread of the coronavirus, but it wasn’t enough to convince protestors in Idaho, my colleague Richard Read reports.
Idaho demonstrators organized several mask-burning events across the state Saturday. More than 100 people gathered at the state capitol, tossing face masks into a flaming barrel as Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin cheered them on. Some protests featured children dropping their masks into pots.
Experts on extremism say it would be a mistake to dismiss the rallies as antics of a fringe movement. Indeed, it would be like overlooking signs of an imminent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“The denial of the reality of the pandemic and the denial of the legitimate results of the election are not too far apart from each other,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at Western States Center, an organization that tracks extremist groups. “It’s hard to have a functioning democracy if we don’t live in the same shared reality, and that’s one reason why spreading conspiracy theories has been so damaging.”
Some states relaxed their mask mandates in light of declining coronavirus cases, but skyrocketing cases in Europe could serve as a cautionary tale for those inclined to believe the pandemic is gone for good.
Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of 9% from the previous week that ended a six-week decline. The coronavirus strain from the United Kingdom that is roughly 50% more transmissible than its predecessors is spreading significantly in 27 European countries and is the dominant strain in at least 10, according the World Health Organization.
But that’s not the only factor, said Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe. He also cited “the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner.”
The threat of another surge sounds like déjà vu for the Lombardy region of Italy, which was the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus suffering last year. As a result of rising infections, restrictions were tightened in northern Italy last week and classrooms were closed for all age groups. Cases in Milan schools alone surged 33% in a week.
Despite Italy’s continued struggles, one of the area’s most famous residents put coronavirus concerns on the back burner for a high-profile trip.
Pope Francis said prayer and faith that God would look out for people who might be exposed to the coronavirus led him to take make the first papal trip to Iraq, despite warnings from health officials. The historic trip often drew maskless crowds of people singing in packed churches.
While Francis, the Vatican delegation and the traveling media were vaccinated against COVID-19, many Iraqis haven’t been. On Thursday, Iraq reported 5,173 new coronavirus cases, the most for a single-day in the country since the pandemic started, according to WHO.
Your questions answered
Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: What will I be allowed to do once I’m fully vaccinated?
Quite a bit, according to new recommendations from the CDC.
As expected, the guidelines unveiled Monday allow fully vaccinated people — that is, those who have had at least two weeks for their final, required shot to activate their immune systems — to gather indoors without face masks or social distancing. But the advice also includes information about how to safely mix groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, my colleagues report.
From the CDC: Those who are fully vaccinated can “visit with unvaccinated people from one other household indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart if everyone in the other household is at low risk for severe disease.”
That means, for example, vaccinated grandparents can visit their healthy adult children and grandchildren again as long as the adult children and grandchildren all live together and none of them — or anyone else in they live with — has a condition that makes them vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19.
Also, fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 unless they begin showing symptoms of having the disease.
Although the recommendations are a step forward, officials were quick to add that they don’t grant permission for a full return to normal life. Even vaccinated people should continue to wear face masks and maintain social distance when in public, while gathering with unvaccinated people from more than one other household, or when visiting with an unvaccinated person who is at increased risk of developing severe COVID-19.
The CDC still advises against medium- or large-sized gatherings. Domestic and international travel should also be delayed for now. If you must travel, the CDC‘s rules still apply, including a requirement for air passengers arriving in the United States to provide a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a flight into the country.
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