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Going to school in a pandemic isn't kids' stuff

Pop-up quarantines, shifts to virtual add to challenges by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | October 24, 2021 at 5:04 a.m.
Students board a school bus on New York’s Upper West Side last month. Even as most students return to learning in the classroom this school year, disruptions to in-person learning, from missing one day because of a late school bus to an entire two weeks at home due to quarantine, remain inevitable as families and educators navigate the ongoing pandemic. (AP/Richard Drew)

Schools are in full swing across the country, but complications wrought by the pandemic persist, often falling hardest on people least able to weather them: families without transportation, people with limited incomes or financial hardships, people who don't speak English, and children with special needs.

Coronavirus outbreaks in schools and individual quarantine orders when students are exposed to the virus make it a gamble whether they attend classes in person on any given day. Many families don't know where to turn for information.

And sometimes, because of driver shortages, going to school is as simple as the school bus showing up or not showing up.

For some families, children attending school is a matter of having or not having the private resources to deal with breakdowns in the public education system. For others, language barriers or other communication issues leave them uninformed about things like programs that let students return to school despite virus exposures, as long as they test negative for infection.

And while some students can keep up with school by attending remotely during quarantines, others receive little to no instruction, or they lack internet or devices to connect to classes.

As districts seek solutions, they have to consider that disproportionate burden, said Bree Dusseault, principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

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"If you're going to be using a [covid] test as a tool to shorten quarantine, then all students [must] have equal and free and easy access to that test," she said.

The effects of unpredictable stretches at home can mirror those of chronic absenteeism and lead to long-term harm in learning, said Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

"The irregularity of your attendance is as important as the total amount you miss," Balfanz said. "It lingers with you because you miss key moments of learning that everything else builds upon, and that can even lead to later frustrations."

Some families have had more guidance than others in navigating the unexpected, unstructured periods of learning at home.

In Seattle, Sarah Niebuhr Rubin's son was sent home for two weeks when he was identified as possibly being exposed to the virus. Because the exposure counted as an excused absence, Rubin said her son received no live instruction and no consistent services for his reading disability, except for two sessions with specialists who went out of their way to meet with him.

Without those services, she said, he struggles to complete work without constant supervision, which she could not provide while working from home.

"There really was nothing," Rubin said. When her son returned to the classroom, she said it felt like the school year was "starting all over again."

EXEMPTION DENIED

Meanwhile, a Raleigh, N.C., principal's denial of a kindergarten student's mask exemption, despite the child having a doctor's note, is drawing anger from some conservative activists.

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The child's mother had requested a medical mask exemption from Powell Elementary School, a magnet school in East Raleigh. The parent cited a pediatrician saying that the kindergartner was unable to keep a mask on because of a sensory processing disorder.

In a taped telephone conversation that was provided to a local conservative podcaster, Principal Curtis Brower told the mother that he needed to see the child's medical records and speak with the pediatrician. He ultimately rejected the request to let the child not wear a mask all day at school.

"I have the power to make a decision whether this is approved or denied in my school, yes ma'am," Brower said in the phone call. "The doctor can give me whatever information. If I don't feel like it would suffice, I deny it. It is my choice, unfortunately. It is the principal's discretion and decision."

The telephone call, which occurred in September, was provided by an anonymous parent to Matthew "Jax" Myers and played Tuesday on his podcast. Myers made headlines in April 2020 when he was arrested after reopening his Apex tattoo parlor in violation of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order, The News & Observer previously reported.

Myers said on the podcast that the child is now attending Powell and wearing a mask. But Myers said the child is having anxiety issues because of the mask so she can only attend school for half days.

Although the parent provided Myers with the recording, Wake County school officials said she has not yet given the school permission to share specifics about the case. Details about students are normally covered by federal privacy laws.

But Lisa Luten, a Wake school spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday that "the district has reviewed the circumstances described in the recording and, at this time, believes that the school's actions are consistent with district policies and practices."

Luten also said Brower was unaware that the parent had been recording their conversation. North Carolina law requires that only one party in a conversation give consent for it to be recorded.

Wearing masks has become a heated national topic, leading to protests at school board meetings across the nation. Masks have become common sights in schools since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with some parents arguing that it should be a choice whether they're worn.

Like most of North Carolina's school districts, Wake County requires face coverings to be worn inside schools. Wake is the state's largest school district, with 160,000 students.

But Wake says it exempts students "if they have a medical condition or disability that renders mask-wearing harmful or medically inadvisable."

This school year, Wake didn't make parents of special-education students attending regional programs file mask accommodation forms. Some of those students don't wear masks because of their severe disabilities. Wake provides air purifiers in those classrooms.

In the Powell case, the parent cited letters from a pediatrician and a chiropractor who said wearing a mask would cause anxiety and agitation that would disrupt the child's ability to learn. Brower said he needed more information in the case, citing how sensory processing issues can present differently for individual students.

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses, according to WebMD.

The request for medical records has drawn complaints from Myers and some other conservative activists. Luten said it's common for principals to ask for student medical records when health accommodations are requested, such as for peanut allergies.

TENNESSEE CASE

A Tennessee school district can continue requiring students to wear masks in school after a federal judge Friday extended a ruling blocking an opt out provision, The Tennessean reported.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by the families of two children with disabilities who attend Williamson County schools. They claim that Gov. Bill Lee's executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates puts their children at risk and violates their educational rights.

In the Friday opinion, U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw found that "disabled students are at a significantly higher risk for severe infection and are exposed at a higher rate" following Lee's executive order. He called that "an irreparable harm" that justifies continuing to block the order.

"The record before the Court establishes that temporary universal mask mandates adopted by the Williamson County and Franklin school systems have been, and likely would continue to be, effective in curbing the spread of covid-19," Crenshaw wrote. "Executive Order No. 84 violates federal law and must yield."

The ruling mirrors those by federal judges in Memphis and Knoxville, where Lee's order is also blocked. As a result, school districts in Shelby, Williamson and Knox counties can continue to enforce universal mask policies.

The rulings don't apply to other school systems in the state.

Lee has encouraged people to voluntarily send their children to school wearing masks to help reduce the spread of covid-19 but says parents should decide what is best for their children. He has vowed to continue fighting in court, and the state attorney general has appealed the decisions in Memphis and Knoxville.

Lee first issued the executive order in August and has extended it several times. The current order runs through Nov. 5.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has opened civil rights investigations into Tennessee and four other Republican-led states that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools. The department states that the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

Masks are a key virus-prevention tool that are most effective when worn by a large number of people, public health experts say. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended them for schools, saying they don't pose health risks for children older than toddler age.

Information for this article was contributed by Annie Ma of The Associated Press and by T. Keung Hui of The News & Observer (TNS) in Raleigh, N.C.

COVID-19 Response representative Hadja Bah administers a test to a child, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
COVID-19 Response representative Hadja Bah administers a test to a child, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
A school bus moves past a COVID-19 teacher test site, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
A school bus moves past a COVID-19 teacher test site, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
COVID19 Response representative Hadja Bah prepares for testing, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
COVID19 Response representative Hadja Bah prepares for testing, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. When Marietta City Schools started the 2021-2022 school year, the Georgia district that serves 9,000 quickly had to quarantine about 10% of its students and staff. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
FILE — In this Sept. 13, 2021, file photo, a student has his temperature taken as he arrives at PS811 in New York. Even as most students return to learning in the classroom this school year, disruptions to in-person learning, from missing one day because of a late school bus to an entire two weeks at home due to quarantine, remain inevitable as families and educators navigate the ongoing pandemic. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
FILE — In this Sept. 13, 2021, file photo, a student has his temperature taken as he arrives at PS811 in New York. Even as most students return to learning in the classroom this school year, disruptions to in-person learning, from missing one day because of a late school bus to an entire two weeks at home due to quarantine, remain inevitable as families and educators navigate the ongoing pandemic. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

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