Vermont college says Halloween parties led to campus COVID outbreak, states consider ending school mask mandates

A masked student sits in a classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York City.
A masked student sits in a classroom in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Vermont college blames recent COVID-19 outbreak on Halloween parties

The president of Vermont's Saint Michael's College says that a recent COVID-19 outbreak that led to 89 new cases on campus was tied to several Halloween parties.

In a letter to the school community issued Sunday, Lorraine Sterritt said that officials are "deeply saddened that the investigation of the genesis of this increase in positive cases points to Halloween parties as being a significant part of the problem. Sterritt continued: "I call on all members of our community to act responsibly in order to protect the entire community. Failure to comply with the College’s policies during a pandemic can have very serious consequences for one's own safety, for the safety of other community members and their families, and for the functioning of the college."

Saint Michael’s College's COVID testing policy is to test unvaccinated students weekly and any symptomatic students, according to the school's COVID-19 dashboard. School data show that 55 students tested positive for COVID-19 the week ending Nov. 5, and an additional 34 students have tested positive so far this week.

Vermont is one of the most vaccinated states in the country — 79 percent of the population ages 5 and older has received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data. However, the state is currently seeing more cases than ever, with the Vermont Department of Health reporting 505 new cases on Friday.

Saint Michael's College requires that students be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but does allow for religious and medical exemptions.

"The situation we are in was not inevitable," Sterritt said. "We were doing really well as a community up to the point where there were numerous Halloween parties where students were unmasked and in close contact. We are managing this situation, and we will get back to where we need to be, but we need to be clear about what caused this disruption to all of our lives. It was the disregard for our health and safety guidelines and college policies on the part of some members of our community."

Experts say that factors like vaccination status and how much COVID-19 is circulating in a community matters when it comes to indoor gatherings right now. "Presently, indoor parties pose a significant risk in most communities since the burden of disease remains high with this never-ending Delta wave," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life. "Mask use is impossible when food and drink are involved, and ventilation is often poor."

But the "risk is greatest" for people who are unvaccinated and have never had COVID-19, Russo said. "Even the fully vaccinated are at increasing risk as the time from infection or vaccination increases, which results in waning immunity," he says. "If you choose to party, the best means to minimize risk is for the previously infected to get vaccinated and the vaccinated to get their booster shot. Of course, passing on parties is even safer."

It's possible to attend parties safely right now, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life — everyone just needs to be vaccinated. "No event has a zero COVID risk, but if all attendees are vaccinated, I consider it a lower-risk activity," he said.

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania could drop school mask mandates after the holidays

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said during a press conference on Tuesday that the state may drop its mask mandate for schools if COVID-19 cases are low after the holidays.

Hochul said increasing vaccination rates among all age groups — including 5- to 11-year-olds, for whom the vaccine was just authorized — can play a role. "Right now, here's what I see ... a lot of demand. The lines are a little bit long and ... that's good," Hochul said. "At some point, if the parents are any indicator, it's going to level off, and then we'll start to say, 'OK, where are the pockets where we need more kids vaccinated?'"

Just a day before, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had a similar take on school mask mandates during a press conference. "If you get vaccinated, we'll lift the mandate," he said. "The executive order for mask mandating in schools, just to put a date out there — and I'm not suggesting this is the date folks should focus on, but another data point — is January 11 that expires," Murphy said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Monday that he plans to let the state's school mask mandate expire on Jan. 17, 2022. At that point, Wolf said, local schools can choose to continue their mask mandate or do away with it.

Doctors are divided on lifting mask mandates already. "It is hard to say whether that will be a reasonable course of action," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Yahoo Life. "The pandemic has been extremely hard to predict."

Adalja says a lot depends on COVID-19 cases in the states after the holidays. "Mitigation strategies should be based on clear metrics, and I do think that if cases are at manageable levels and hospital capacity is not threatened, it should prompt public health authorities to revisit their mitigation strategies," he said.

Parents upset over Washington school district's use of 'isolation room' for suspected COVID cases

Parents in Washington's Valley School District are speaking out after school officials used an "isolation room" that wasn't fully supervised to separate students with suspected COVID-19 cases from the rest of the school.

Valley School District Superintendent Ben Ferney issued a statement on Facebook earlier this week, admitting that an internal review found that "an adult was not present 100 percent of the time when students were in the isolation area."

"[On Nov. 5], we had our first experience with needing to close two different grade level classrooms due to positive COVID cases," the statement said. "The Health Department requires that we check students with known exposure to a positive case for current symptoms and isolate those students from other students. Through that process of evaluating and isolating symptomatic students, we found some weaknesses in our supervision plan and the space used to isolate symptomatic students."

Ferney said the district has "fixed that procedure to ensure that going forward, supervision will be maintained 100 percent of the time." Ferney also noted that the isolation space has two doors — one to the outside of the building and an internal door with an automatic locking mechanism that connects it to the rest of the school. "Our procedures going forward will ensure that the inner door remains propped open whenever the space is used for isolating symptomatic students," Ferney said. "We apologize that we did not recognize the need for these key elements in our protocols prior to Friday, when we used those protocols for the first time with a high number of potentially symptomatic students at the same time."

Ferney then asked families for patience. "We are a learning institution, and we must also continually learn and grow as leaders in the middle of a constantly evolving pandemic that forces us to adapt and change in our endeavor to keep our kids and staff safe," he said.

Michele Dockery told Spokane, Wash., news station KHQ-TV that her daughter Danica was placed in the isolation room for hours with five other students after faking a headache. Dockery said that Danica and the other students had little to no supervision and no food or bathroom breaks. "She did have an accident but was scared to tell anyone for fear of going back in that closet," Dockery said. "She thought she was going to get in so much trouble."

The district limited the comments on Ferney's Facebook post, but some people turned to other posts to speak out about their concerns. "Unacceptable to be treating children this way. Adults need to do better protecting children in their care. This is going [too] far. I don't care what fancy words you put on it. You locked kids in a closet alone. UNACCEPTABLE. Before Covid this would have been called child abuse. Heads up, it still is child abuse. This was never done before when kids were sick. It shouldn't be done now," one wrote.

"Really? Is that why a woman who went to pick up her child found him in a locked closet with other students? All I can say is you're extremely lucky this was not my child. And I'm sure just like me many other parents are considering pulling their children from valley school," another wrote.

"This is absolutely insane. Who would ever think that locking kids up anywhere is OK. Whoever decided that it was OK should be brought up on child abuse charges," someone else added.

Ferney told Yahoo Life that the isolation room space was selected by the school nurse because it met requirements from the Washington State Department of Health Guidelines. "The space has ventilation both intake and air return along with a drinking fountain and access to the boys and girls locker rooms with bathrooms," he says. "The rear door has a push jam that is unlocked and allows access to outside for parent pickup and fresh air."

Students are usually picked up within a 30-minute timeframe when they're placed in the isolation room "based on parent availability," Ferney said.

The school district is now "seeking third-party input" on the best space to use for students who show symptoms of COVID-19, Ferney said. "Although we are required to isolate symptomatic students, our goal is to improve this process to best serve our students," he adds.

Several Seattle-area school districts closed on Friday due to COVID-related staff shortages

Officials from the Seattle area's Kent School District announced this week that schools will be closed on Friday due to "staff and substitute shortages."

"Like districts across the country, we continue to see sustained staff shortages in multiple teams across our district, including teachers, bus drivers, nutrition services, paraeducators, and office support staff," a statement from the district reads. "Our teachers, support staff, and administrators at every level and in our central office have gone above and beyond each day to serve our students and families, often sacrificing the time they need to take care of themselves. The levels of stress in our staff are incredibly concerning, we believe this has in part led to the high volume of planned leave for Friday, November 12."

Interim Superintendent Israel Vela said in a statement that the pandemic "has impacted us all in so many ways," adding, "I know that each of us in Team KSD is working through trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, our staff, at every level, has experienced an unprecedented amount of stress, impacting their mental health. Unfortunately, we cannot safely operate schools with the staff and substitute shortages we are already seeing in our data."

The district plans to make up the day on Friday, March 25, 2022. Vela did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Kent School District isn't the only Seattle-area school that has shifted to a four-day weekend. Seattle Public Schools also added Friday as an additional day off. "We are aware of a larger than normal number of SPS staff taking leave on Friday, and do not believe we have adequate personnel to open schools," reads a message on the Seattle Public Schools Facebook page.

Clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life who also serves as a mental health consultant to several schools, tells Yahoo Life that the pandemic has been particularly stressful for teachers and school staff. "Teachers have been in environments with children that until the last few weeks have not been vaccinated and, in many areas, not masked," he says. "So they walk into a work setting that is highly vulnerable to COVID spread."

Schools have also been "hotbeds of controversy," Mayer says, citing "contentious school board meetings" and "angry parents that take their feelings out against teachers because they can interact with teachers more accessibly." That's on top of the typical demands that are placed on teachers by parents and students, he says.

"Finally, teachers always have an impossible workload with the demands of overloaded curriculums set by the school administration. Try getting that accomplished and keeping order and control over 20 to 30 children, each with unique needs and wants," Mayer says.

Mayer urges families of school-age children to have more empathy and compassion for teachers and "be a team player." He also suggests volunteering for school trips, special activities and extracurriculars when you can to help lend extra support for teachers when they need it.

Teachers directed students to tape masks to their faces at a Colorado school

Several teachers at Academy District 20's Chinook Trail Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., apologized this week after encouraging students to tape improperly worn masks to their faces.

Academy District 20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez says a parent "raised concerns" in mid-October that teachers "were warning students if they wore their face mask incorrectly, they would be provided tape to keep it in place. That weekend, after photos of the students were posted online on various social media platforms, the story exploded on social media."

The school started an investigation soon after and found that, while teachers didn't actually tape masks to students' faces, they did tell the students to do it. "Students did believe they were required, by a teacher, to use tape to affix their mask to their face," Cortez said. "After examining all evidence, the district determined a policy/procedure was violated by the team of four teachers."

The teachers have since met with the parents and guardians of their student pod. "The teachers of this pod, four teachers in total, explained they were working to keep their students in person as much as possible and were trying to eliminate frequent quarantines," Cortez said. (The district has a mask requirement.) "The local and state quarantine criteria says if there is a suspected COVID-19 exposure, students can remain in class, and stay out of quarantines, if both parties are wearing a face mask. Teachers, therefore, viewed masks as a way to keep students safe and healthy in their classrooms," Cortez says.

The teachers issued a formal apology to parents in a letter that was shared with Yahoo Life. "It was never our intent to cause anxiety, fear, confusion, or physical or emotional harm," the letter reads. "Please accept our deepest and most heartfelt apologies. We can only imagine how the past three weeks have felt for each of you. For us, it has been a time of deep reflection. As a team we made a decision that was not best for our students. We will learn from this situation, and moving forward we will strive to do better and always do what is best for kids."

Cortez says there has been a "great deal of support" from the school community for the school and teachers. "The investigation was started from one complaint," she says. "Since that time parents/guardians from the school have sent flowers to the school, sent meals and baked goods to the school and placed supportive signs in front of the school."

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