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Briefly Stated: March 9, 2022

March 08, 2022 8 min read
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Pfizer Shots Protect Children From Getting Severe COVID Cases

“Get the vaccine” has become the mantra among most health-care professionals. Here’s the latest reason why.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine gave children 5 and older strong protection against hospitalization and death even during the omicron surge that hit youngsters especially hard, U.S. health officials reported last week.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came a day after a study of New York children suggested the vaccine may not be as effective in 5- to 11-year-olds as in older kids—especially at blocking milder infections. Those data raised the question of whether kid-sized doses given to those younger than 12 might be too low.

But the CDC said data from multiple other states suggest the issue isn’t children’s ages or dose size—it’s omicron. Vaccination generally is less effective against the hugely contagious omicron variant than earlier versions of the coronavirus—and vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds began just weeks before omicron began circulating.

“What we see from the data that we have is that the vaccine continues to provide good protection against more severe outcomes,” said CDC epidemiologist Ruth Link-Gelles.

Pediatricians say the back-and-forth results may seem confusing, but parents need to understand the shots are still the best way to prevent serious illness.

“If you’re vaccinated, you may get a mild infection, and we’re just going to have to learn to live with that,” said Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The CDC reported that between April and early January, nine COVID-related deaths occurred among vaccinated children ages 5 to 17—compared with 121 deaths among unvaccinated children that age.

Also, the CDC examined pediatric hospitalizations in 10 states from last April to the end of January. The vaccine proved 74 percent effective against hospitalization in 5- to 11-year-olds.

In comparison, the vaccine was 92 percent to 94 percent effective against hospitalization in 12- to 17-year-olds. Most of the hospitalizations of adolescents occurred when the earlier delta variant was dominant, while most of the hospitalizations of those younger than 12 occurred during the omicron wave, which started in early December.

Relaxed Mask Guidelines Raise Uncertainty for the Parents of Children With Disabilities

Many parents and students are likely singing the praises of federal health officials who’ve eased recommendations about wearing masks in schools for children who live in “low” or “medium” risk areas for COVID-19. Not so parents of children with disabilities.

The sudden change announced on Feb. 25, a Friday, after many schools had closed for the weekend, left parents of medically vulnerable children with big questions about how to ensure their children are safe at school—and complicated a key legal argument they have used to push for universal face covering in schools during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention switched from metrics that put nearly every county in a red “high transmission” area and guidance that said all schools should require masks regardless of virus level to new measures that labeled 63 percent of counties as low- or medium- risk areas, for which universal masking isn’t recommended.

“It was extremely difficult for the parents,” said Ken Behrend, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represents Pennsylvania families in federal lawsuits over their districts’ mask-optional policies, which they say discriminate against children with disabilities. “They were all expressing dismay, nervousness,” he said. “Some were visibly shaken by what happened.”

The parents have faced difficult choices during the pandemic. On the one hand, their children often benefit from therapies and academic interventions that are difficult to deliver remotely. On the other, the CDC has said people with conditions like moderate to severe asthma and diabetes may be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

That assertion, combined with the CDC’s previous recommendation of universal masking in schools, has been key in lawsuits brought by disability rights groups and parents. It also formed the basis of civil rights investigations the U.S. Department of Education launched into seven states that ban districts from setting local mask requirements.

Even as the national guidance, and virus rates, have changed, disability rights advocates said their legal challenges would continue.

States Aren’t Meeting Students’ Needs—and Don’t Even Keep Track, Finds a Wide-Ranging Analysis

States aren’t cutting it when it comes to the constellation of policies that support students’ social, emotional, and academic development. So says a state-by-state policy review by the Education Trust. That’s especially the case regarding equity priorities and making key data accessible to families and communities.

The analysis by the nonprofit research group—in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—examines policies around school discipline; wraparound services; educator diversity; professional development; rigorous and culturally sustaining curriculum; and student, family, and community engagement.

While states performed well in some areas but faltered in others, one consistent theme emerges from the analysis: States consistently fall short on collecting data to measure and publicly disseminate the impact of their policies.

“States have a long way to go when actually reporting on discipline rates, when reporting on survey data about community and family engagement,” said Sarah Mehrotra, a policy analyst for the Education Trust.

California alone met benchmarks for data collection around discipline—including publicly reporting district-level data on offenses and punishments, the number of students expelled more than once, and breaking down data by race and gender as well as English-learner, socioeconomic, and disability status.

Just three states—California, Idaho, and Rhode Island—and the District of Columbia publicly report information collected through surveys and school climate data on how engaged students, families, and local communities feel in their schools.

Nine states report data on high schoolers’ participation in advanced coursework, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, broken down demographically.

As for such wraparound services as health care, only 12 states require districts to assess the needs and strengths of students and school systems to identify both gaps and available supports.

Although 21 states publish annual school-level data about the racial makeup of their educator workforce, only Connecticut and Delaware publicly share annual school-level data on retention rates among teachers of color.

Judge: Admissions Policy at Elite School Is Illegal

Leaders of one of the best public schools in the country—if not the best—may have to go back to the drawing board in revising their admissions policies.

A federal judge ruled late last month that the Fairfax County, Va., school system discriminated against Asian Americans when it overhauled the admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as “TJ.”

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton found that impermissible “racial balancing” was at the core of the plan at TJ, which is routinely ranked at the top and is highly competitive.

In 2020, the school board scrapped a standardized test in favor of a system that set aside equal numbers of TJ slots at each of the county’s middle schools, among other changes.

Hilton, in his ruling, wrote, “The discussion of admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception.”

Although the school has enjoyed a stellar academic reputation for decades, Black and Hispanic students were woefully underrepresented in the student body.

TJ’s current freshman class, the first to be accepted under the new policies, reflects a significant change in racial makeup. Asian representation decreased from 73 percent last year to 54 percent. Black representation climbed from 1 percent to 7 percent, and Hispanic from 3 percent to 11 percent.

The school system insisted its new policies are race-neutral; among other things, officials noted that the panelists who evaluate applications don’t even know the race of the students they are evaluating.

They also argued that efforts to increase Black and Hispanic representation are legally permissible as long as the school board had not demonstrated a desire to harm Asian Americans.

A lawyer for the school system said the school board will consider an appeal.

Parents Sue W.Va. District Over Religious Assembly

Parents in West Virginia are calling a school district on the carpet—actually to court—for forcing their children to be subjected to religious proselytizing.

The parents and students are suing the Cabell County school district for allowing an evangelical preacher to hold a religious-revival assembly during the school day that some students were required to attend.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court last month on behalf of families by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the school system has a systematic history of disregarding the religious freedom of its students and instituting Christian religious practices.

The suit follows a walkout at Huntington High School where more than 100 students left their classrooms chanting, “Separate the church and state,” and, “My faith, my choice.”

Calling it an honest mistake, a district spokesman said the assembly was supposed to be voluntary, but two teachers brought their entire classes.

Later, schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe said that the district is investigating the revival event and that he believes some students’ rights have been violated. Saxe, who is named in the lawsuit, said district leaders would not tolerate anyone forcing religious beliefs on others.

The complaint says that on Feb. 2, two Huntington High teachers escorted their entire homeroom classes to an assembly hosted by evangelical preacher Nik Walker.

Students, including a Jewish student who asked to leave but was not permitted to do so, were instructed to close their eyes and raise their arms in prayer, according to the suit. The teenagers were asked to give their lives over to Jesus to find purpose and salvation. Students said they were told that those who did not follow the Bible would go to “face eternal torment.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyers say that religious services—voluntary or not— should not be allowed during school hours. The foundation alleges it has written several legal complaint letters over the course of years that the district has ignored.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Staff Writer; and Arianna Prothero, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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