Education

Briefly Stated: September 29, 2021

September 28, 2021 8 min read
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Pfizer Says Vaccine Works and Is Safe for Children 5-11

Educators, policymakers, and parents may be breathing a little easier after Pfizer’s announcement last week that its COVID-19 vaccine works for children ages 5 to 11 and that it soon will seek U.S. authorization for this age group—a key step toward beginning vaccinations for youngsters.

The vaccine already is available for anyone 12 and older. But with students now back in school and the extra-contagious Delta variant causing a huge jump in pediatric infections, many parents are anxiously awaiting vaccinations for their younger children.

For elementary students, Pfizer tested a much lower dose—a third of the amount that’s in each shot given now. Yet after their second dose, children ages 5 to 11 developed coronavirus-fighting antibody levels just as strong as teenagers and young adults, Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president, said.

The child dosage also proved safe, with similar or fewer temporary side effects, such as sore arms, fever, or achiness, that teenagers experience, he said.

“I think we really hit the sweet spot,” said Gruber, who’s also a pediatrician.

Earlier this month, FDA chief Dr. Peter Marks said that once Pfizer turns over its study results, his agency would evaluate the data “hopefully in a matter of weeks” to decide if the shots are safe and effective enough for younger kids.

Many Western countries so far have vaccinated no younger than age 12, awaiting evidence of what’s the right dose and that it works safely in smaller tots. But Cuba last week began immunizing children as young as 2 with its homegrown vaccines, and Chinese regulators have cleared two of its brands down to age 3.

While children are at lower risk of severe illness or death than older people, more than 5 million youths in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and at least 460 have died, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Cases in children have risen dramatically as the Delta variant sweeps through the country.

“I feel a great sense of urgency” in making the vaccine available to children under 12, Gruber said. “There’s pent-up demand for parents to be able to have their children returned to a normal life.”

Moderna also is studying its shots in elementary school-aged children.

N.Y.C. School District Headed for ‘Fiscal Cliff’ When Funds From Federal Stimulus Run Out

While New York City’s may be the largest, could it be that districts across the country may be facing the same prospect?

That prospect is what the New York state controller’s office is calling a “fiscal cliff” for the nation’s largest school system when billions in federal stimulus funds dry up in 2025.

New York City’s district is set to receive roughly $8 billion in federal cash over the next four years—and has pledged much of it to expanding ongoing initiatives like free preschool for 3-year-olds and hundreds of new social workers.

The problem, the comptroller’s office says in a new report, is that the federal money expires in 2025, but the initiatives it’s funding don’t, forcing officials to find a new way to cover more than $1 billion annually by 2025 or make difficult cuts.

“This is not something you provide and roll back,” said Rahul Jain, the deputy state comptroller for New York City. “It’s going to be there and add to the expense base the city is taking on.”

The biggest recurring expense is the expansion of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “3-K” program, which officials project will grow to serve more than 60,000 youngsters and cost more than $750 million a year at full size starting in fall 2023.

The city proposed covering all $753 million with one-time federal funds in fiscal 2024 and splitting the cost evenly between city and federal money in fiscal 2025. That means officials will need to cover the full $753 million by fiscal 2026—a steep task with the city already projecting a $4 billion deficit by then, Jain said.

Additional hundreds of millions per year will be spent paying for more social workers and “community schools”—initiatives that will also be vulnerable when the federal money runs out, Jain said.

All in all, 3,800 new staff positions will be funded with federal dollars by 2025—“positions that the city will have to consider cutting if it is unable to find other recurring funding sources for the programs,” the report says.

Laura Feyer, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, said, “We carefully monitor DOE’s budget and will address any needs through the budget process at that time.”

District That Banned Diverse Videos and Books Reverses Course Following Community Pushback

Weeks of criticism that drew a national media spotlight to Pennsylvania’s Central York district led the school board last week to lift its ban targeting articles, videos, and books created by people of color.

The big question is: Had the board even looked at the materials before banning them in the first place?

In November, the board unanimously banned the so-called diversity list. Many teachers were surprised to find an email from Central York High School Principal Ryan Caufman on Aug. 11 that said: “Please see the attached list of resources that are not to be permitted to be utilized in the classroom.”

The list included the Oscar-nominated PBS documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about writer James Baldwin; a statement on racism from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators; and a children’s coloring book that featured African Adrinkra symbols found in fabrics, logos, and pottery.

Despite the board’s action, members, including Veronica Gemma, asserted that the district does not ban books.

On the contrary, the four-page list includes an external link to a spreadsheet of literature ranging from kindergarten picture books to high school novels.

“We need to remember … that every book on this list has been available in the library,” Gemma said at the latest meeting. “Was this grade-specific sublist caught up in the vote last November? Yes, it was—and that is my regret, and I am deeply sorry for that.”

That didn’t pacify students, teachers, and even alumni.

“You have this all-white school board banning articles of people of color. To me it’s very racist,” said Don Dehoff, a 1964 graduate who shipped back his diploma over the action.

Some questioned whether district officials had even read the materials.

Children’s author Marti Dumas’ series “Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest” received a spot on the list. Her series, meant for young children, is about a kindergarten genius who solves problems using the scientific method.

“I know 100 percent that nobody read this book,” Dumas said. “Unfortunately, this seems like a textbook example of when we talk about institutional racism.”

Okla. Governor Seeks Audit of State Education Agency

They’re both Republicans, but that hasn’t stopped Oklahoma’s governor and state schools chief from being at loggerheads.

Lately it’s been over school mask mandates. Gov. Kevin Stitt opposes them; schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is a proponent.

Now, Stitt wants an investigative audit—the first ever, according to the governor—of the education department Hofmeister leads. That follows an explosive report on Epic Charter Schools last year. The audit would focus on the state agency’s financial oversight of public schools.

From Hofmeister’s perspective: “At a time during which there are serious audits we have requested which potentially involve criminal activity, and while 541 school districts are struggling to find normalcy during a pandemic, the governor’s attack on public education couldn’t be worse timing for students, families, teachers, and taxpayers.”

In part, it looks like Stitt’s doing the bidding of GOP lawmakers who urged him in November to examine the education department after the audit of Epic reported widespread financial mismanagement. The lawmakers said they feared a lack of financial oversight “permeates throughout our public education system.”

The department receives the most funding of any agency in the state, more than $3 billion this year.

In the past 6½ years, meanwhile, the agency has undergone more than 20 financial, compliance, and programmatic review audits by the state auditor’s office, according to Hofmeister. And the governor’s secretary of education, Ryan Walters, has approved every agency spending request over $25,000, she said.

As for Walters, he wants to see where “every dollar ... enters the agency and follow that dollar to where it ends up. That’s the only way that you can ensure that dollars are getting where they’re supposed to go.”

Leaders Purported to Help Hungry Children Indicted

Even during a pandemic.

The leaders of a nonprofit intended to feed hungry children instead spent money on Maseratis, flights to Cancun, and other high-end purchases, authorities say.

The nonprofit Helping Others In Need provided meals to underprivileged children in Pennsylvania who needed food after school or during the summer, using funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.

But federal authorities said a trio of Texas residents running the organization lied about how many children they fed and spent the funds on a lavish lifestyle.

Charles Simpson, 43, and Tanisha Jackson, 49, and Paige Jackson, 29, a mother and daughter, have been charged.

According to an indictment unsealed this month in a federal court in Pennsylvania, all three had been blocked from participating in feeding programs in Texas and Arkansas because of previous misconduct before forming Helping Others In Need, but Simpson and Tanisha Jackson used aliases to enroll the nonprofit in two feeding programs.

All three falsely said they’d never been deemed ineligible to participate in publicly funded programs, the indictment says.

From 2015 to 2019, they’re accused of submitting claims for half a million meals and snacks that were never served to children, according to the indictment, and sometimes they sought reimbursement for food served at sites that hadn’t been in operation for weeks or months.

The Pennsylvania education department paid the nonprofit over $4 million over four years.

According to the indictment, the fraudulent spending included more than $120,000 on luxury fashion apparel; $500,000 on payments for expensive vehicles; a dozen cash withdrawals over $10,000 totaling $265,150; tens of thousands on flights and rental cars; and tens of thousands in funds sent to personal bank accounts.

The Associated Press, Wire Service and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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