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With Most Kids Unvaccinated And Class Starting, Schools Come Up With Safety Protocols


Students head back into classrooms this month, in some cases for the first time since the pandemic began. And this week, we have seen plenty of headlines about back-to-school hiccups, like one Florida district asked hundreds of students to quarantine only two days into the school year, and in Georgia, some schools have already announced that they are going virtual after starting the year in person. Clare Lombardo of NPR's education team has been talking to school leaders and joins us now.

Hi, Clare.


CHANG: All right, so kids inside classrooms after nearly a year and a half in all these places around the country - how is it all going so far?

LOMBARDO: A lot of kids are really, really excited to be back in class. Some of them haven't been back in over a year. But, of course, the delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading, and it's really throwing a wrench into some of these school plans. I talked to the superintendent in Fayette County, Ky. His name is Demetrus Liggins. And this is his first year as superintendent. It's actually his third week on the job. Schools started there on Wednesday, and Liggins says it's been pretty eventful.

DEMETRUS LIGGINS: On a daily basis, we're having students and staff that are testing positive. We're having both students and staff that are having to quarantine.

LOMBARDO: And he said he anticipates that to go on throughout the school year.

CHANG: OK, so clearly a lot of challenges to in-person learning. What kinds of safety protocols are you seeing in these schools?

LOMBARDO: Yeah, there are guidelines from the CDC and the Education Department about what schools should be doing, and those include universal masking and encouraging vaccinations for people who are eligible. But of course, they aren't laws. So in most places, schools are doing what's in line with their state and local rules about COVID precautions. In Fayette County, Liggins says they're offering rapid COVID testing for anyone who has symptoms, and they're keeping really deep, detailed notes of where kids are in class every day for contact tracing.

LIGGINS: Even at lunch, we know where our students are sitting every single day and who they're sitting around. And so if someone does ultimately test positive, we know what students have been impacted by that.

LOMBARDO: A lot of states have been requiring masking in school for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. Kentucky, where Liggins is, is one of them. Washington and Oregon are, too, and Virginia just joined that list this week.

CHANG: Yeah, and then there are other places where masking is only optional - right? - in states where school leaders are actually banned from mandating masks. What are these superintendents doing?

LOMBARDO: Right. Well, some superintendents are requiring them anyway. That's happening in Texas, Florida and Arizona. These superintendents are watching virus numbers go up, and they're facing off against their state leaders who say masks should not be mandated in schools. Here's Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa when he made the announcement that masks would be required when kids head back to school this coming Monday.


MICHAEL HINOJOSA: I need to implement whatever safety protocols I feel are in the best interest of our school district.

LOMBARDO: And there's something else Hinojosa mentioned that other school leaders are also contending with right now. Earlier this year, some states, including Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, they all adopted measures that effectively put limits on remote learning, and that's gotten tricky now because if cases get high enough, it leaves schools with a lot fewer options. In Dallas, Hinojosa said his district is looking at relaunching a virtual option for students, even though right now there isn't state funding for one.

CHANG: And we should keep in mind most of the students heading back to K-12 schools aren't vaccinated, right?

LOMBARDO: Exactly, yeah. Kids under 12 aren't eligible for the vaccine yet.

CHANG: Right.

LOMBARDO: And according to the CDC, vaccination rates for older kids are still far behind the rates for adults. So...

CHANG: That is NPR's Clare Lombardo.

Thank you, Clare.

LOMBARDO: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.