As of Monday, most of the country's 50 million students are back in school — with many having dealt with the challenges of reopening classrooms in the middle of a pandemic since early August.
How to keep children safe, of course, tops the list of concerns; as the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus circulates, the number of children who've been hospitalized is growing. Last week, more than 250,000 child COVID-19 cases were reported, the highest weekly total ever. What's more, children under 12 are still unable to get vaccinated, though that could change soon.
Other challenges schools are navigating include mask mandates, as well as bans on mask mandates in several states, vaccine mandates for older children and adult staff in schools, and implementing regular testing. Schools that have fared the best often have smaller populations or have introduced COVID-19 mitigation strategies. More than 1,000 schools nationwide have been temporarily closed because of outbreaks.
With states and districts taking a range of approaches to students going back to school, parents have struggled to get direct answers to how to keep their kids safe. TODAY addressed top questions in a town hall with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, both parents. TODAY co-anchors (and moms) Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb also asked questions, as did teachers and students from around the country.
Here's a full rundown.
When will the vaccine be available to kids under 12?
WALENSKY: We're waiting for the companies to submit the data to the (Food and Drug Administration). We're anticipating that will happen in the fall. We will look at that data from the FDA, from the CDC, with the urgency that we all feel for getting our kids vaccinated, and we're hoping by the end of the year. ... We anticipate moving quickly, but we also want to have the efficacy data and the safety data that FDA will require so that we know as soon as it is available ... the science has gone through the safety and efficacy to make sure that it is the right thing for kids.
Is the delta variant more dangerous to kids? Is it more transmissible?
WALENSKY: Dangerous is more transmissible. If it is more transmissible, we have more kids with symptomatic disease and ending up in the hospital. We haven't seen yet any data that does suggest that if you get the Delta variant it's more severe in a given person, but we are definitely seeing more disease. This virus is an opportunist. It'll go where people are not vaccinated. The best thing we can do for our kids is surround them by people who are vaccinated.
Are you concerned vaccine mandates are going to worsen vaccine hesitancy?
WALENSKY: The plan is to get more people vaccinated to keep people out of the hospital, to keep people from dying and to keep our kids in school, to keep our economy up and running. The president is working with these vaccine mandates, mandating vaccinations for over 100 million workers, to turn the corner. I am all in on any way that we can get people the information they need to get vaccinated.
Should the vaccine be mandated in all school districts?
CARDONA: It's our responsibility to make sure that across the country students don't have to deal with disruptive learning again, so in those places where they are doing mass vaccine mandates, I do support their effort. Those are local decisions, but I do believe, yes, if we're seeing that the vaccines work and they're our best tool, they should (be mandated).
Was President Biden's mandate that some teachers and students be vaccinated, which came after school was in session in many places, too late? Should he go further?
CARDONA: We were waiting for the FDA to approve it. They approved it, we know it works, and we know that it's helpful to keep our schools open. It's unfortunate that we lost educators. It's unfortunate that our students have to experience that. We know what works, we have to use those tools.
Should teachers have to disclose their vaccination status?
CARDONA: Districts across the country now are putting in testing mandates if they don't have information about whether the teacher is vaccinated. That's a step forward, to make sure that we're protecting our students, we're protecting our staff and we have school environments that are reducing the spread of COVID. What we're finding is COVID rates in schools are just mirrors of what's happening in the community. We need to do our part to lower community spread so our schools stay open.
What is the metric that will be used to determine when to end COVID-19 restrictions in schools?
WALENSKY: What we really need to see is very high vaccination rates, very low rates of disease in the community, and then we can start peeling back these precautionary measures so that schools can get back to normal, but we all need to lean in and unify towards a common goal over the year ahead.
Many teachers feel they're not seeing the impact of $125 billion that Biden's American Rescue Plan invested in schools for reopening. How is it being spent?
CARDONA: We asked states to submit a plan on how they're focusing on equity and stakeholder engagement because it's really important that we work with our families, with our educators to get it done. When those plans are approved, they get the other allotment of funds, and then we work closely with states and districts, if we're finding that the funds are not getting into the classrooms, where they belong. The resources are there. The president was very clear, and Congress was very clear. We need to support our educators, and you should be seeing the funds in the classrooms.
How can we support smaller class sizes to make sure that young minds get the individual attention they need to develop, especially after a year filled with isolation?
CARDONA: With the American Rescue Plan and the other funds that came before that, we have to reimagine education. We have to take bold steps to make the experience for our students different than they were in the years past, and that also means, after a pandemic, being able to personalize instruction more to meet the students where they are, which includes smaller class size, a better ratio of adults to students, social workers, school psychologists available for these students who have experienced a lot over the last year and a half. Most importantly, we're lifting up the best examples across the country where states are being bold to make sure that we're giving the students a better experience than ever before.
How can parents be assured that their kids' teachers are vaccinated so they can go back to school safely?
WALENSKY: We are working closely with the states. As the president has encouraged vaccination mandates for workers, we will encourage the states to scale up their vaccination mandates. I would also encourage you to come to the CDC website where we have a list of questions that parents can ask, advocating for your students, advocating for the CDC guidance, so that you can ask the questions of your school administration and say, "These are what the guidance says. How can we be assured that you're going to follow it to keep my child safe?"
When are parents' and students' voices going to be taken into account to come up with a plan that allows for mask choice?
CARDONA: Two-thirds of the people across the country agree with mask mandates. We all want our children to be safe. I've visited 17 different states to talk to students directly. They're not as concerned about the masks as the adults are. They want to get to their games after school, they want to be able to see their friends and they know that if they're not masked, there's a greater likelihood that school is going to be disrupted. We have all elementary age students who don't have vaccines, we have to keep them in mind.
Is there anything from a medical standpoint that parents should be worried about regarding kids wearing masks in schools, such as disruption of learning or breathing?
WALENSKY: We have not seen any science that defends that point of view. Even this month, data from Los Angeles County, rates in children are 3.5 times higher in areas that have not practiced the mitigation strategies compared to those that are. So with the purpose of keeping our kids in school, having them be safe, masks really are the way to go.
With so much division around mask and vaccination requirements, how can school communities maintain a healthy culture in the classroom?
CARDONA: Education is a unifier. We all want the best for our kids, and I'm excited that we can get back to the business of teaching and learning. I'm confident that we're going to do that. Reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic is difficult work, but if we, as educators, model how to do it respectfully, I think our kids are gonna be better off for it.
What do you say to people who are skeptical of masks to prove they do work and can help us combat this virus?
WALENSKY: We have seen data after data that have demonstrated that schools that are not masking are closing because they're having outbreaks. Schools from Georgia we saw last year had 37% less closure, less outbreaks when they used masks. Data from L.A. demonstrates 3.5 times the rate of COVID in kids if they're not masking, so the data actually absolutely show that masking decreases outbreaks in schools.
When kids can get vaccinated, will they need two shots or three?
WALENSKY: We're still looking at two shots for adults, so I anticipate at least two for kids, but we'll see where the science takes us.
How can school systems provide instruction to assist students in both virtual and in person without overworking and burning out teachers? How would that impact seniors applying to college?
CARDONA: We found last year that the conditions for educating students in a virtual or hybrid model weren't ideal, and we have the tools to make sure that we can get students in the classroom safely and without interruption. We should be able to keep students safely in school and provide an alternative for students who are quarantined using different staff. The American Rescue Plan provided the funds. All students deserve an opportunity to learn in the classroom and have uninterrupted attention from their teacher.
In the past students have had to show proof of vaccination, such as the flu shot to go to school — why is that not available?
CARDONA: That's a culture we're going to create, but I'm very pleased with what I'm seeing around the country now, where if you're not sharing that you're vaccinated, you have to follow testing protocols regularly to make sure that we're keeping COVID-19 out of our schools. I think we're going to get to a point where it's going to be normal for folks to communicate that they're vaccinated. We need to keep our students at the center, not politics.
What reassurances can both of you offer parents, teachers and students that being in person is the right idea right now?
WALENSKY: It's the best thing for our children to get kids back to school and keep them in school. What we have seen time and time again just in these first couple of weeks of school is that places that are not practicing the mitigation strategies are the places that are closing. Places that are practicing the mitigation strategies are able to keep their kids safely in school and to keep those schools open. Getting everybody vaccinated who's eligible to be vaccinated — adults, teenagers over the age of 12 — and then to surround our younger kids by people who are vaccinated, masking in the schools, ventilation, screening, testing, those strategies work. We've seen in Los Angeles County, rates of disease in kids is 3.5 times lower in areas that are practicing these mitigation strategies.
When young kids are able to get the shot, will that be the turning point in this pandemic?
WALENSKY: When that happens, we're all going to have to lean in to get vaccinated. It will really depend on whether people choose to get the vaccine themselves and for their children.
How do you hold on to hope for the teaching profession? What can you tell teachers right now about how we're going to elevate our profession so that we can best serve all students?
CARDONA: We need to support our teachers by making sure their school environment is safe, that they're getting paid adequately to make sure that they're supported so they don't have to have second and third jobs to make ends meet. We have to lift the profession and provide them the support to be able to meet the needs of the students that are coming back post-pandemic.
The pandemic has been especially difficult for special needs kids? How are you going to help them?
CARDONA: For students with disability who rely on (hands-on) instruction or the smaller class size, the experience on remote learning wasn't as good. So when we come back, we've got to double down on our strategies, make sure that our class sizes are smaller, that they're getting the support that they need to recover what was lost. Going back to what it was in March 2020 is not good enough for our students.
How do the different variants of COVID-19 get their name, and how do the original vaccines combat the variants?
WALENKSY: The variants are named from the World Health Organization with Greek letters. Variants can emerge in different ways. Some can emerge to be more transmissible, and some can emerge to evade our vaccines. So far none of the variants we've seen can evade our vaccines, but that's something that we're watching very carefully.