School districts close Thanksgiving week for mental health, Maryland reports over 10,000 student COVID cases since start of school year

·9-min read
Masked students participate in a lesson in their classroom at Yung Wing School in New York City.
Masked students participate in a lesson in their classroom. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

School districts give students Thanksgiving week off for mental health

Several school districts across the country are giving students the week of Thanksgiving off to help boost their mental health. 

In North Carolina, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have added an optional teacher work day and two new "wellness" days to give students and staff off for the week of Thanksgiving. 

"This was a decision that for us was a long time coming," Andy Jenks, chief communications officer for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, tells Yahoo Life. "We have heard consistently from our employees, our students and, in some cases. family members of those students that in a school year unlike any other, students and employees are feeling a substantial impact on their mental health and they are asking for a break."

The district is "looking at ways to provide time for our students and employees and community as a whole to be mindful of their mental health and wellness. This was one way we can do that," Jenks says. According to Jenks, students and staff are "overwhelmingly grateful" for the move, although a few families have expressed concerns about finding child care for those extra days. "We are sensitive to that too," Jenks says, adding that the school system is looking into alternative child care options for those families. 

"We think that these changes demonstrate how deeply we're listening to our students and families," Jenks says. "We will do everything we can to be the most supportive school district we can be."

Nebraska's Grand Island Public Schools has also added two additional days to its Thanksgiving break in hopes it will help students and staff relax a little.

"Our staff are just burning the candle at both ends and taking care of each other," associate superintendent Robin Dexter recently told the school board. "We would like to honor the need for mental health for staff and students, so we were asking for the 22nd and 23rd [off]." The request was later granted by the board.

Data has shown that the mental health of children has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A May Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that parents with children ages 5 to 12 reported that their children had elevated symptoms of depression (4 percent), anxiety (6 percent) and psychological stress (9 percent) and experienced an overall worsened mental or emotional health (22 percent). A January survey from the Jed Foundation found that 31 percent of parents said their child's mental or emotional health was worse than before the pandemic. 

"Overall, kids are doing well. It is important to know that kids are resilient, and they have navigated into this phase of the pandemic well," clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "The majority of kids looked forward to going back to school and familiar activities. They understood things wouldn't be back to normality, so their expectations weren't high — they kept their expectations and joy in just returning to the path of normality."

But, Mayer says, "returning to the classroom and other activities has been exhausting" for kids. "Adults often forget or can't empathize that for kids, the structure of a school day is a lot for them to accommodate — it's draining," he says. "So, this week off will help them continue their good adjustment this year."

What kids have been going through is "not too much different than what adults are managing, yet children typically have less effective coping skills to manage feeling distressed," David Klow, licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of Chicago's Skylight Counseling Center and author of the book You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist, tells Yahoo Life. But "rest, restoration and play can help with feeling less stressed and overwhelmed," he says. "A week off from school might help kids recharge their batteries."

Mayer says he's been encouraging parents to "take the pressure off" their kids. "This still isn't a normal school year, so don't put extra stress on them by excessive demands," he says. "Be understanding and supportive when they are burned out."

Maryland has had over 10,000 COVID cases in students since school opened

The Maryland State Board of Education said Tuesday that the state has seen more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases in students since the school year began on Aug. 30. More than 1,800 staffers have also been diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly 50,000 students have had to be quarantined, the board shared.

The state has had a mandatory face mask mandate in place since Sept. 14, but board members said they would revisit it in December. Board president Clarence Crawford said during the meeting that the board would "build toward a reasoned decision and approach" on how the mask mandate would be addressed in the future.  

The state of Maryland reported 929 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, according to a state dashboard. State data also reveal that 588 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.

Infectious disease experts expect mask mandates in schools to eventually lift across the country. "Kids won't be masking in school forever," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. 

The exact timing of this is hard to determine, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "Schools will likely begin to lift mask mandates when they have high levels of vaccination among their student body and employees as well as decreased community transmission," he says. "It is less about the timing but more about the metrics."

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that a lot depends on local infection rates. "If we see a sustained drop in cases, then it might be reasonable to do so sooner than the spring," he says. 

Louisiana governor lifts a state mask mandate — but not for K-12 schools

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he is lifting a statewide mask mandate in all settings with the exception of K-12 schools due to "sustained improvement across the state in terms of new cases, test positivity and hospitalizations," according to a press release from his office.

The updated order allows school districts to opt out of the mask mandate, though, as long as they continue to follow the existing quarantine guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Today, I am cautiously optimistic and very relieved that the worst of this fourth surge of COVID is clearly behind us, which is a direct result of the people of Louisiana who stepped up to the plate when we needed them to and put their masks back on, got vaccinated and took extra precautions to stay safe. That's why we are able to lift the statewide mask mandate,” Edwards said in a statement. "This new order does offer a way for local leaders to end the school mask mandate if they so choose. Let me be clear — Louisiana has been a leader in bringing students safely back into the classroom. And they have done that by following public health guidance including on masking and quarantine. Public health experts and I encourage schools to stay that course. But because case numbers are going down and have reached a new baseline I do believe it's an appropriate time to give schools more autonomy. It's not lost on me that while Louisiana has seen 18 children die of COVID, half of those deaths came in the last three months, as the much more contagious Delta variant surged throughout our state.”

Louisiana faced a massive surge in COVID-19 cases in late summer, according to state data, far exceeding what the state had seen during previous waves. However, cases have fallen with the state reporting 491 new cases on Thursday — down from its peak in August. 

Experts stress the importance of continuing to mask up in schools. "Although many states have lifted their states' mask mandates, it is important for unvaccinated persons to wear masks in high-risk settings," Adalja says. 

Allowing districts to do without masks in schools is "premature and risky," Watkins says. Russo agrees. "We still want to protect the children," he says. "Mask mandates will do that while they catch up on vaccinations."

College enrollment sees largest 2-year drop on record in 50 years due to the pandemic

College enrollment across the country has plummeted over the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic, marking the biggest drop on record in 50 years, according to a new analysis. 

Data of 50.5 percent of institutions was analyzed by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It found that undergraduate enrollment in September 2021 fell by 3.2 percent since fall 2020. Enrollment in fall 2020 also saw a drop — 3.4 percent — from 2019.

"Far from filling the hole of last year's enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper," Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a press release. "A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see significant nationwide declines in undergraduate students." Community colleges have seen the biggest decline, with a 14.1 percent drop in enrollment since fall 2019. 

Despite the drops, doctors say that college campuses are largely safe right now. "They are if they have high vaccination rates and mandatory masks indoors," Russo says. "but it depends on the college campus." Adalja agrees. "I think it is safe for students to be on college campuses," he says. "We have widely available vaccines that tame the virus. That is the best tool to make college campuses resilient to COVID."

Adalja stresses that students — and people in general — need to learn to adapt to life with COVID-19. "It's critical to realize COVID will never be gone," he says. 

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