As more and more school districts across the country welcome students back to campus for in-person instruction, one mainstay of the school year threatens to throw a wrench in district leaders’ hard-wrought plans: spring break.
In normal years, spring break is a popular travel holiday, a chance for students and staff alike to have a well-deserved getaway. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discouraged traveling, saying it increases one’s chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. That has left district officials, worried about potential outbreaks in schools, in the difficult position of asking their school community to stay close to home over the break—but without any real control over what people do in their free time.
“This is the last big hurdle before summer,” said Kimm Schwartz, a nurse for the Ketchikan, Alaska, school district.
District leaders have been in this position before, with Thanksgiving and winter breaks. But this time, with COVID-19 cases declining across the country, some states are lifting travel restrictions, leaving administrators to decide if they will impose their own.
Also, the rapid increase in vaccinations pushes the moment into uncharted territory.
At this point, all U.S. teachers are eligible to be vaccinated, either through their state’s prioritization plan or through a federal pharmacy program. While some are still waiting for appointments, others are fully vaccinated. There are currently no vaccines approved for anyone under 16, so most students aren’t protected from COVID-19. Some students’ parents might already be vaccinated, though. And after a long year of staying home, those who are inoculated against COVID-19 are eager to travel and see loved ones.
Still, the CDC has recommended that vaccinated people continue to follow travel recommendations, which include avoiding crowds, getting tested before and after the trip, and self-quarantining for a week upon return. While a growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infections and are potentially less likely to transmit the coronavirus to others if they do contract it, the CDC’s guidance says that preventative measures are still necessary until more is known. Research is also still being done into how much vaccines protect against new coronavirus variants.
Experts say it’s too early for people to let their guards down this spring break, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Every time large numbers of people travel, the pandemic really kicks up again,” said David Freedman, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “A particular concern right now is the issue of variants. The easiest way to move variants from one state to another is with travel.”
For instance, the more contagious variant of COVID-19 first found in the United Kingdom, technically known as B117, is spreading rapidly in Florida, a popular spring break destination.
“With new variants increasing the transmissibility [of the virus], and some states being quite aggressive in how quickly they’re releasing control measures, I think it’s certainly possible that the negative factors from that outpace the benefits of vaccination and lead to the possibility of another wave,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Lessler said district leaders should tell their school communities: “We’re very close to a point where things are a lot better. ... This has been hard, and this has been long, [but] you just need to hold on a little bit longer.”
And certain types of travel can be done more safely than others, Freedman said. Families should avoid traveling to COVID-19 hot spots or where large crowds of people will gather, like amusement parks or other tourist attractions. But driving to visit out-of-state relatives, especially those who have been vaccinated, is safer, he said.
Some districts are closing down schools
Yet district leaders say they’re grappling with pandemic fatigue in their communities. Some are expecting such a high volume of travel that they’re closing school buildings the week following spring break out of an abundance of caution.
“We are going into a year of COVID, and a lot of our teachers and support staff have made plans over spring break,” said Marnie Hazelton, the superintendent of the Linden, N.J., school district. “They expressed a desire that they really wanted to visit with family members that they may not have seen over the past year.”
Although the district has a policy that if students or staff travel outside of the tri-state region they have to quarantine for 14 days—or 10 days with a negative test result—many educators made it clear that they would be willing to use their sick leave to do so. That meant the 6,300-student district might not have enough staff to cover classrooms following spring break, Hazelton said.
Instead, the district made the decision to stay remote for the week after spring break. (Because of an increase in the city’s COVID-19 infection rate, the district has also reverted back to remote learning from March 12 through at least March 19. Spring break is the last week of March.)
“We’re just alleviating anxiety to allow our hardworking teachers and support staff to enjoy, for the first time in almost a year, a nice, quiet spring break,” Hazelton said. Still, travelers should be careful and follow health and safety guidelines, she added: “We’re not advocating they go to Florida or some of these hot spots.”
In Juneau, Alaska, Superintendent Bridget Weiss also made the decision to go back to remote instruction for a week following spring break.
“We just felt like we’ve made such major progress, and we’ve done really well as a school district since we opened up for regular in-person learning in January—we just didn’t want a major setback,” she said.
The unknowns that would come with holding in-person classes immediately after spring break “seemed to put a lot of pressure on the system unnecessarily,” Weiss said. “One week of providing distance learning is a minimal inconvenience for potentially eight or nine weeks of really great” in-person time.
About a third of the broader Juneau community is already vaccinated, she said, and about 400 of the district’s 750 employees have already received at least one dose. The state is top in the nation in terms of vaccination rates, with anyone 16 and older now able to get vaccinated. But Weiss said it’s too early to rely on vaccinations, especially since the district doesn’t know which parents are vaccinated and because of the unknowns with the emerging coronavirus variants.
The response from the school community to the decision to temporarily go back to remote instruction has been overwhelmingly positive, Weiss said, although one parent asked her if she was encouraging travel.
“I’m not encouraging travel, I’m trying to mitigate around the very strong likelihood that people are going to want to get out of Dodge for a week,” she said. “I do want to protect those folks who are not traveling, too. If someone who travels ends up positive … [it could end up] impacting a lot of people, not just those who traveled.”
Some are asking travelers to quarantine
Gwinnett County schools, outside of Atlanta, has said that any student or staff who leaves the country during spring break will have to quarantine for 10 days upon return, or for seven days with a negative test. Students who travel domestically will not have to quarantine, a spokeswoman for the 180,000-student district wrote in an email.
In Ketchikan, a 14,000-person city located on Revillagigedo Island in Alaska, the school district has said that anybody who travels during the break—whether they leave the state or not—must quarantine for at least five days upon return. They can return to school after their quarantine period with a negative test. People who are fully vaccinated don’t need to quarantine, but they do have to take a COVID-19 test upon return. (Students who are under 10 or have special needs don’t have to be tested and can use the negative test results of the adult who traveled with them.)
Many members of the community are frustrated with the rule, said Schwartz, the district nurse, especially since Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently lifted statewide travel restrictions.
“A lot of people in the community—they’re tired,” said Sherity Kelly, the other nurse for the district. “I get it, I’m tired myself. But we’re so close. [We need to do] a little bit extra just to keep safe.”
The district is telling families to follow these rules to protect other students and staff—and so schools can remain open through the rest of the school year.
The East Brunswick school district in New Jersey has told students and staff that if they travel overnight to anywhere outside of the immediate region (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, or Connecticut), they will be required to quarantine from school for 10 calendar days after their return. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will not be accepted as a substitute for quarantining. If staff members must quarantine, they will have to use their accumulated sick leave to do so.
“We cannot control what families and all of our school community will do during spring break, but we’re trying to maintain as healthy of an environment as we can,” said Superintendent Victor Valeski.
About half the district’s staff is either partially or fully vaccinated. Still, Valeski said the 8,200-student district has to be cautious to prevent an outbreak. Students are currently coming to school just a few days a week, but the district hopes to bring back elementary students to full-time, in-person instruction soon.
Of course, as is the case everywhere, whether people admit that they’ve traveled is on the honor system. Valeski said he is concerned about the possibility that someone might not disclose their travel—but chances are, the truth will come out.
“One of the things that we have discovered is with social media, not too many things are secret,” he said. “When people travel, they post things on social media.”
Social media is one of the reasons Hazelton, the superintendent in Linden, N.J., opted to go remote. In the past, she said, teachers turned in their colleagues who posted travel pictures but weren’t quarantining.
“It takes up a lot of time and energy to be the COVID police,” she said. “It creates a very tense environment. … That takes away from why we are really here.”
Other districts aren’t setting any rules
Bill Ziegler, the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, Pa., said his district didn’t discuss setting its own travel restrictions after Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the state requirement to quarantine or get tested after traveling from a different state. The school has a short spring break—only three days off—and Ziegler said he’s encouraged families and staff to follow CDC guidelines during it.
“I think our community has been really responsible [throughout the pandemic],” he said. “We’re hoping that that continues.”
In Waukesha County, west of Milwaukee, many districts proactively went remote following holidays like Halloween, Mike Cady, the superintendent of Pewaukee schools in the county, wrote in an email. But they didn’t see many post-holiday surges—and now that rates of infection have declined in the region and more people are getting vaccinated, the area’s district leaders are not planning to make any adjustments for spring break. In Cady’s district, staff will be fully vaccinated before spring break, he said.
“We have been very successful running school with very low [incidence] of viral spread within our school system,” he said, pointing to mitigation practices such as mandatory masking, enhanced sanitation measures, keeping students in cohorts, and hospital-grade HVAC systems.
District leaders say that figuring out what to do about spring break travel is the latest in a long line of decisions for which there are no easy answers.
“There is science behind the mitigation, there’s no science behind all of the decision making we have to do as superintendents,” Weiss said, adding that over the past year, there has never been one singular right answer. “It’s a constant intake of data points and discerning what makes sense for our community.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Avoiding Another COVID-19 Wave: How Schools Are Handling Spring Break Travel