Students and parents share Covid-19 concerns as the school year starts

By Fernando Alfonso III, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Melissa Mahtani and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 7:59 p.m. ET, September 10, 2021
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9:52 a.m. ET, September 10, 2021

Teacher says "misinformation and the ignorance of basic viral science" forced him to retire

Susan Colvin and Randy Black.
Susan Colvin and Randy Black. (Courtesy Randy Black)

After teaching for nearly two decades at numerous elementary, middle and high schools around Fort Collins, Colorado, Randy Black was forced into retirement due to health conditions that made him more susceptible to Covid-19.

When the last school district he worked for announced they would be returning to in-person instruction this year, Black, 68, considered it "a life or death decision and I chose life."

Black, a former math and science teacher, suffers from asthma and takes three prescriptions for it.

"My decision was based both on the school's safety measures and follow through, and a personal health decision. Had I been offered another year teaching online I most likely would have stayed," Black told CNN over email. "My faith in how we are culturally handling the pandemic, the back and forth, the misinformation, and the ignorance of basic viral science played a huge role in my decision. That is, I am on my own and cannot at this time rely on society to make decisions on Covid-19 that are effective or safe."

Black is currently looking at a retirement job in wellness coaching using traditional Chinese medicine to supplement his pension, he said.

A student of history: Black said the time he spent studying the 1918 flu prepared him for what the coronavirus pandemic would become.

The 1918 flu killed 50 million to 100 million people through 1919. There are eerie parallels between the 1918 flu and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic: a disease with a startling range of symptoms for which there is little treatment, human behavior as a hindrance to public health and cluster outbreaks that have become widespread, to name a few.

The startling and harrowing nature of the 1918 flu and its fatal consequences induced a sense of caution that, in some places, had permanent implications for how people would respond to disease outbreaks in later decades — such as using isolation and quarantine, according to a 2010 paper by Nancy Tomes, a distinguished professor of history at Stony Brook University.

9:52 a.m. ET, September 10, 2021

Some students don't want to return to in-person schooling

From CNN's Faith Karimi

Taliyah Rice returns next week for her final year of high school in suburban Chicago. She's anxious about going back to in-person learning, but it has little to do with coronavirus fears or first-day jitters.

Taliyah is mostly worried about facing social pressures she hasn't had to deal with in more than a year. Virtual learning, she said, helped her to thrive in class and engage more with her studies than she did in person.

"For online classes, you don't have to worry about trying to fit in, who will talk to you in the hallways," she told CNN. "I struggle with social anxiety and overthinking. Virtual school made it so much easier for me. I didn't have to deal with some of those pressures."

As schools reopen across the US, many children are excited to get back into classrooms with their friends. But for some others, especially kids with social anxiety, online learning was a welcome respite from bullying and the stress of trying to fit in. For them returning to school, with its classroom dynamics and cafeteria social pressures, can feel daunting.

Taliyah, a straight-A student, transferred to her school in Chicago Heights as a sophomore and spent her whole junior year doing virtual classes. So now she's returning to school without much chance to get to know her classmates -- something that's added to her anxiety.

The high school senior says she felt more comfortable interacting with teachers and fellow students online during the pandemic. She's felt at ease asking questions in class from the safety of home.

"For children with social anxiety, virtual learning took away the social pressures to look or act a certain way," said Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of the Center for Psychological Services at George Mason University. "There were fewer pressures to dress a certain way, cameras were often off so no one could see their expressions and there was less pressure to verbally participate in front of others."

And as the Delta variant drives another surge in Covid-19 cases, shifting rules about mask wearing and other school procedures are also causing confusion and stress among students planning their return to classrooms.

9:52 a.m. ET, September 10, 2021

How Covid-19 vaccinated adults can navigate their return to an office

From CNN's Katia Hetter

People walk to get a train in Grand Central Terminal on August 30, 2021 in New York City. 
People walk to get a train in Grand Central Terminal on August 30, 2021 in New York City.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidance to once again recommend that even vaccinated people start masking indoors in areas of the country with high and substantial coronavirus spread. Key to their decision was a study that shows that fully vaccinated people can still transmit the Delta variant.

At the same time, Disney, Netflix, Google, Walmart and the federal government announced plans to implement some type of vaccine requirement for employees returning to in-person work.

Is it safe for vaccinated people to return to work if vaccine mandates are in place? What if they are not -- is masking enough, and what if others around you are unvaccinated and not wearing masks? What about workers who have children too young to be vaccinated?

To help us navigate these uncertain times, we turned to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She's also author of a new book, "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health."

CNN: We know that breakthrough infections can happen. How does it help to have vaccine mandates at work if the vaccinated can also spread Covid-19?

Dr. Leana Wen: Vaccine requirements will help make workplaces much safer for everyone. Here's why. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what the CDC's new data is showing. The agency found that vaccinated people infected with Covid-19 may carry just as much virus as those who are unvaccinated and have Covid-19.

However, the chance of actually contracting Covid-19 is greatly reduced if you're vaccinated. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, you have an estimated eight-fold reduction in risk of having coronavirus if you're vaccinated compared to if you're not -- and an estimated 25-fold reduction in risk of having severe enough disease to cause hospitalization and death, which is truly remarkable.

CNN: What if the workplace allows people to opt out of vaccination through testing?

Wen: It depends on how frequent the testing is. Testing is not a strategy that prevents someone from contracting Covid-19. However, if there is frequent testing, it could pick up on infections quickly and prevent that person from spreading it. I'd feel more comfortable with twice-weekly testing than weekly testing. Either the antigen test or PCR test should be fine, as long as it's authorized by the FDA.

Test less frequently and I think you get into a situation of false reassurance. Just because someone tested negative a week ago doesn't mean that they couldn't have contracted coronavirus in the meantime. And if they are unvaccinated, they have a higher chance of getting Covid-19 and therefore of passing it on to you.

CNN: Should workplaces require both vaccinations and masking?

Wen: This is an interesting question, and one that the CDC has not really weighed in on. Right now, the CDC is saying that indoor masking should occur in areas of high or substantial Covid-19 transmission, and they are not saying that if everyone is vaccinated, masks are no longer needed.

I think this is a mistake. The risk of vaccinated people transmitting to other vaccinated people is low. At some point, we have to accept that we're not going to get zero risk. Workplaces need to protect their employees, and a vaccine requirement is a very good level of protection. If a workplace truly has an enforced vaccine mandate with proof of vaccination, I think they could make masking optional instead of required.

3:08 p.m. ET, September 10, 2021

Texas mom says it's tough to live in a community that "is OK with risking our children's safety"

Christine Kolbeson.
Christine Kolbeson. (Courtesy of Christine Kolbeson)

Christine Kolbeson's heart sank when she saw the principal, nurse, and most of the teachers at her children's school maskless.

With no mask mandate at the school, Kolbeson, of Bulverde, Texas, often feels like the "bad guy" when telling her 5- and 8-year-old to mask up when so many others don't, she told CNN over email.

"While masks are not mandated, my hope would be that majority of staff and students would wear masks thus driving the importance of mask-wearing," she said. "It’s difficult enough to have my 5-year-old kid wearing a mask but it makes it that much more difficult when someone of authority isn’t wearing one either. My 8-year-old has anxiety about it because her peers won’t wear them and she feels singled out. It’s a hard struggle as a parent to constantly battle your children’s mental and physical well-being with limited support."

Mask mandates have become a contentious topic in Texas.

The Supreme Court of Texas refused Gov. Greg Abbott's request to intervene Aug. 19 in the case of mask mandates established by several local jurisdictions.

As a result, the lower court ruling allowing school districts to require masks in their schools still stands.

The decision is the latest in a culmination of battles between local leaders — who cite the need for mandatory masking to curb the spread of Covid-19 in schools — and the state government, which said parents and students should have freedom of choice in whether to wear masks.

Kolbeson said she feels limited in her options considering she had to work full-time which eliminates homeschooling as an option.

"Our only option is to continue to push the importance of mask-wearing with our kids and hope that they don’t get sick," she said. "It feels very hopeless and we’ve been stripped of basic safety measures to protect our children. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, fine but why remove social distancing and masks when they’ve proven to be effective at preventing the spread of this virus?"

9:52 a.m. ET, September 10, 2021

Illinois college student juggles the excitement of returning to campus with the concern over Covid-19

Damonte Hill.
Damonte Hill. (Courtesy of Damonte Hill)

With just one year left at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Damonte Hill finds himself at odds over being thrilled about being back on campus and concerned about Covid-19.

The university requires masks indoors for those vaccinated and unvaccinated against Covid-19, Hill told CNN over email.

Hill admits he was hesitant to get the vaccine at first but after talking to his doctor, saying that "he helped to answer the questions I had so I felt comfortable enough" to get it.

"I would say that the concerns about Covid do worry me, but I think that having faith, which is a big part of me and also wearing my mask and getting vaccinated will help me to not worry about those concerns," he said.

Hill, a communications major, thrives under in-person instruction and hopes of attending seminary school starting a non-profit organization upon graduation.

Vaccine hesitancy persists: Black people are the most undervaccinated racial or ethnic group in the US. More than 45% of the US population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but coverage among Black people is less than half of that, at about 22%.

"These lower rates may be due in part, to vaccine hesitancy, but they may also be due to inequities in vaccine access," Dr. Lisa Cooper, founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, told CNN. "Many African Americans in the South live in rural areas with limited access to health care facilities. Furthermore, many people may have other stressors related to housing, food, or job insecurity, which may be preventing them from getting vaccinated."