Washington, Jan 14 (UNB) - State leaders around the U.S. are increasingly pushing for schools to reopen this winter — pressuring them, even — as teachers begin to gain access to the vaccine against the raging pandemic.
Ohio’s governor offered to give vaccinations to teachers at the start of February, provided their school districts agree to resume at least some in-person instruction by March 1. In Arizona, where teachers began receiving shots this week, the governor warned schools that he expects students back in the classroom despite objections from top education officials and the highest COVID-19 diagnosis rate in the nation over the past week.
“We will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,” said Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. “Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.”
Leaders of Arizona’s major hospitals disagreed with the governor’s position, noting at a news conference Wednesday that the state is teetering on the brink of having to ration life-saving care.
“We understand that learning and bringing our children together is very important,” said Dr. Michael White of Valleywise Health. “But at this time with uncontrolled spread of the virus, we need to do things that we know will reduce the chance that the virus will spread and that is not gathering with people we don’t live with.”
The U.S. recorded an all-time, one-day high of 4,327 deaths on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The nation’s overall death toll from COVID-19 has topped 380,000, closing in fast on the number of Americans killed in World War II. Confirmed infections have reached about 23 million.
President-elect Joe Biden initially pledged to reopen a majority of the nation’s schools in his first 100 days but recently revised the goal to most of the country’s K-8 schools. He has said teachers should be eligible for vaccinations as soon as possible after those who are at highest risk.
Some states aren’t waiting, but the process can be scattershot.
Meika Mark, a ninth-grade English teacher in Orange County, New York, got vaccinated Tuesday at a hospital, using a link a friend texted her.
“It’s just word of mouth: ‘Here’s a link and hopefully you get a slot,’” said Mark, who contracted the virus in March and spent the rest of the school year teaching remotely. “I know of a woman who had her husband sit in front of a computer literally all day and just click the refresh button until an appointment came up.”
Mark, 34, is now doing some in-person teaching and is grateful for the added layer of protection.
High school band director Michael Crookston was among the first teachers to get a vaccination in Utah, which is among the earliest states to give priority to educators. Crookston has been in the classroom since the new school year began, despite having diabetes, which puts him at greater risk from the coronavirus.
“It’s been a thing I’ve been looking forward to, a little bit like Christmas,” said Crookston, who teaches at Davis High School, north of Salt Lake City, where he used a parent’s donation to buy 12 air filters for his band room. Students also wear face masks and use covers on their instruments.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has said he wants to vaccinate all teachers by the end of February.
Salt Lake City has been hit hard by the virus and was the only district in Utah to stay all-remote this school year. That has angered some GOP leaders, who have threatened to deny the city’s teachers the $1,500 bonuses promised to the state’s educators.
An estimated 10.3 million Americans have received their first shot of the vaccine, or about 3% of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is an increase of about 1 million from the day before, indicating the vaccination drive is picking up speed after a slow start.
But the U.S. is still well short of the hundreds of millions who experts say will need to be inoculated to vanquish the outbreak.
A report released Wednesday by the CDC adds to the evidence suggesting that children aren’t the main drivers of community transmission. It found that increases in reported cases among adults were not preceded by increases among children and teens. Young adults, it appears, may contribute more to the spread than children do.
Chicago began a phased-in reopening of its schools this week, with about 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special education students expected to return to classrooms and other grades set to follow in the coming weeks. Illinois teachers are not eligible for vaccines yet, but Chicago officials are providing virus tests on school grounds for staff.
Chicago teachers who were punished for refusing to show up for classes over COVID-19 concerns demonstrated Wednesday outside the school board president’s home. Roughly 150 employees were initially docked pay and locked out of the school system, meaning they can’t teach remotely either. District officials said late Wednesday the number dropped to 100 as employees returned to work or had a valid excuse.
“I don’t believe it’s safe to reopen the schools. I don’t believe it’s safe for my family, I live with an elderly mom. I don’t believe it is safe for the city’s children or their families,” said Kirstin Roberts, a pre-kindergarten teacher.
New York State expanded vaccine eligibility to teachers this week. But in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, with 1.1 million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that middle and high schools will remain closed indefinitely.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a $2 billion plan to pay for testing, protective equipment and other safety enhancements to reopen the lowest grades as soon as Feb. 16.
But educators said it is too soon to know when California’s 600,000 teachers can expect to be vaccinated. Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said vaccinations have to come first, then schools can talk about reopening.
“We cannot put our own lives, the lives of our students, and our communities at risk during what is clearly an escalating crisis in our state,” the union leader said.
California’s rollout of vaccines has been slower than anticipated, with the first phase, involving health care workers and nursing home residents, still underway.
On Wednesday, Chiefs of Change, a bipartisan group of school administrators, called on state and federal officials to make teachers and other school employees immediately eligible for vaccinations and provide more resources to conduct testing and contact tracing in school districts.
“Those individuals are very uncomfortable and they’re very scared about coming back into school, no matter how safe we make it,” said Robert Runcie, superintendent of public schools in Broward County, Florida.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that a WHO team in China is working with producers of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for potential emergency use listings.
"I'm pleased that a WHO team is in China currently working with producers of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to assess compliance with international quality manufacturing practices ahead of potential emergency use listing by WHO," Tedros said at a recent media briefing.
He noted that WHO continues to ask vaccine manufacturers from around the world to move swiftly to provide necessary data that will allow the organization to consider them for emergency use listings.
"While we are hopeful about the safe and effective vaccines that are being rolled out, we want to see this sped up and vaccines allocated equitably in the coming weeks," Tedros said.
Researchers from the University of Milan have recently found that a woman in the northern Italian city was infected with COVID-19 in November 2019, according to media reports.
Also read: Covid-19 immunity may lasts for years: Study
Through two different techniques on skin tissue, the researchers identified in a biopsy of a 25-year-old woman the presence of RNA gene sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus dating back to November 2019, according to Italian regional daily newspaper L'Unione Sarda.
"There are, in this pandemic, cases in which the only sign of COVID-19 infection is that of a skin pathology," Raffaele Gianotti, who coordinated the research, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Also read: Global Covid death toll nearing 2 million
"I wondered if we could find evidence of SARS-CoV-2 in the skin of patients with only skin diseases before the officially recognized epidemic phase began," said Gianotti, adding "we found 'the fingerprints' of COVID-19 in the skin tissue."
Based on data in the world literature, this is "the oldest evidence of the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a human being," said the report. Enditem
Malaysia’s king Tuesday approved a coronavirus emergency that will suspend parliament at least until August and halt any bids to seek a general election in a political reprieve for embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Muhyiddin assured citizens in a televised speech that the emergency was “not a military coup and curfew will not be enforced.” He said his civilian government will remain in charge during the emergency, that will last until Aug. 1 or earlier depending on the situation.
The emergency declaration came as a surprise just a day before millions of people in Malaysia’s biggest city Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya and five high-risk states return to a near-lockdown for two weeks.
It also comes amid threats by the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in the ruling coalition, to withdraw support from Muhyiddin to force an early general election. Many in UMNO are unhappy that the party is playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s own Malay party.
Muhyiddin said the national parliament and state legislatures will be suspended and no election is allowed during the emergency. He pledged to call a general election once the crisis has eased and it is safe to hold polls.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said most people could understand the need for movement curbs but an emergency declaration appeared overblown as it is unclear how that could help slow the virus spread.
“It’s very clearly a political move from the Muhyiddin side to preempt political challenges from both his rivals in his ruling coalition as well as the opposition,” he said.
Malaysia last declared an emergency in 1969 after bloody racial riots that killed hundreds. The king, who can declare a state of emergency that allows the country to be governed through ordinances that cannot be challenged in court, had in October rejected Muhyiddin’s request to declare an emergency.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said at the time that existing laws were sufficient to halt the virus spread. But in a palace statement Tuesday, the monarch said he took into account public safety and the country’s best interest in giving his consent after meeting Muhyiddin late Monday.
The king said he was worried as the pandemic has rose to a critical level and at the same time, some parts of the country are struggling with floods that have displaced thousands.
Malaysia’s virus cases have spiraled from just over 15,000 three months ago to 138,224, including 555 deaths, in a fresh outbreak triggered by a local election.
Muhyiddin, in announcing the lockdown Monday, warned the country’s healthcare system was at “breaking point.” He said daily coronavirus cases, which have consistently breached 2,000 in recent weeks, could jump to 8,000 by the end of May if nothing is done. The health ministry also said it has identified the first case of a highly contagious U.K. variant in the country.
Separately, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin became the third Cabinet minister in days to test positive for the virus, his office said Tuesday.
Under the renewed curbs from Wednesday, social gatherings and interstate travel are banned and movement is limited within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius, similar to a national lockdown in March 2020. However, certain sectors in manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantations will be allowed to operate with strict guidelines.
Muhyiddin assured investors that “Malaysia is open for business.”
“This period of emergency will give us much needed calm and stability, as well as enable us to focus on economic recovery and regeneration,” he said.
Muhyiddin took power in March after instigating the collapse of the reformist alliance that won 2018 elections and joined with the opposition to form a Malay-centric government. But his government is shaky with a razor-thin majority in Parliament.
Josef Benedict, a researcher with rights group CIVICUS Monitor, said the emergency appeared to be another bid by Muhyiddin to “hold on to power, block elections and to remove parliamentary oversight” rather than seriously addressing the pandemic.
“A dark day for democracy,” he tweeted.
The FBI is warning of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, stoking fears of more bloodshed after last week’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol.
An internal FBI bulletin warned, as of Sunday, that the nationwide protests may start later this week and extend through Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, according to two law enforcement officials who read details of the memo to The Associated Press. Investigators believe some of the people are members of extremist groups, the officials said. The bulletin was first reported by ABC.
“Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,” the bulletin said, according to one official. The officials were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The FBI issued at least one other bulletin — they go out to law enforcement nationwide on the topic — before the riots last week. On Dec. 29, it warned of the potential for armed demonstrators targeting legislatures, the second official said.
“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve,” the bureau said in a statement. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity.”
The FBI said it wasn’t focused on peaceful protests but “on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters Monday that the Guard is also looking at any issues across the country,
“We’re keeping a look across the entire country to make sure that we’re monitoring, and that our Guards in every state are in close coordination with their local law enforcement agencies to provide any support requested,” he said.
The riots followed weeks of online calls for violence in the nation’s capital in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency. There have been several arrests, and at least two Capitol police officers, one who took a selfie with rioters, and another who put on a Make America Great Again hat, were suspended. At least a dozen more are under investigation, according to lawmakers.
A tweet in which Trump promised that last Wednesday’s event in Washington, D.C., “will be wild” fueled a “month-long frenzy of incitements, strategizing, and embrace of violence against lawmakers,” according to a research group that tracks online extremism activity, In a report issued Saturday, the SITE Intelligence Group also warned that the Capitol attack has emboldened Trump-supporting extremists.
Also read: Capitol Police says officer dies after riots
“No matter how all this plays out, its only the beginning,” posted a user on TheDonald message board, according to the report.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said authorities in state capitals and other major cities besides Washington should prepare for the possibility of violent protests next week.
“A lot of people were energized by what happened last week,” he said. “State capitals are a natural place where people might want to show up, especially assuming that they think there might be a huge presence of police and military in D.C. because of what happened last week.”
Pitcavage tracks militia, white supremacists and other far-right extremists, but he said the Capitol siege demonstrated the emergence of a new movement of ”Trumpist extremists, so caught up in the cult of personality around Trump that they may be willing to break the law or engage in violence purely in support of Trump and whatever he wants.”
The talk of armed marches next week isn’t limited to “radicalized” Trump supporters. State capital events on Jan. 17 appear to be promoted by supporters of the anti-government, pro-gun “boogaloo” movement. Boogaloo followers advocate for a second civil war or the collapse of society, and they don’t adhere to a coherent political philosophy.
Posts on social media sites also have promoted a “Million Militia March” on the day of Biden’s inauguration. Pitcavage said the event, apparently organized by a promoter of the pro-Trump “QAnon” conspiracy theory, appears unlikely to draw a massive crowd.
Javed Ali, a former FBI senior intelligence officer who teaches courses in counterterrorism at the University of Michigan, said it can be challenging for law enforcement to identify the line between people exercising their constitutionally protected rights to bear arms and free speech and those who pose “a real operational threat.”
“The FBI just can’t passively sit in websites and forums and social media platforms, waiting to see who’s going to present a direct threat versus just someone who is being highly radicalized,” he said. “There has to be an investigative predicate for the FBI to then start even the lowest form of an investigation.”
David Deitch, an attorney who was a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s counterterrorism section from 2003 to 2007, said law enforcement must recognize a “tenuous balance” between protected free speech and speech that intends to incites violence.
“It’s a very fact-based, case-by-case determination,” he said. “There’s no one factor that’s going to determine all of it. It’s certainly going to be a judgment call on the part of law enforcement about whether and when to intervene.”