eSchool+ Initiative tracker finds widespread discrepancies in school’s COVID-19 policies

In an analysis of all 50 states’ policies regarding masking in schools, requiring COVID-19 vaccines for eligible students and teachers, and providing COVID-19 services in the school environment, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University has discovered widespread disagreement and variation not only between states but also within states themselves, as individual districts adopt policies that conflict with the guidelines of their own governors.

“The COVID-19 virus doesn’t care about school districts or state lines,” said Megan Collins, a bioethicist and associate professor of medicine at the Wilmer Eye Institute who is co-director of the Johns Hopkins Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions. “The current uncoordinated approach has put us in a third year of education impacted by the coronavirus and we are rapidly approaching a fourth. Our goal is to provide useful, reliable information for education and public health policy stakeholders and researchers, teachers, school staff , and parents from all over the country — anyone who works or thinks about kids going back to school and staying there.”

“The discrepancy between state and district policies can lead to trust issues for parents and teachers as they are told one thing from the state, and often quite another from their school district.”

Megan Collins

Co-Director, Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions

The analysis uses information from a new online tracker launched by the Johns Hopkins eSchool+ Initiative that examines state policies related to masking in schools, COVID-19 vaccines for eligible students and teachers, and COVID-19 services offered in the school environment in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Education, and major US territories. The tracker also includes details of 56 index school districts selected from 20 states, representing the lowest and highest poverty rates, as well as the largest school district in each state.

Currently, the tracker lists North Dakota as the only state to ban individual districts from requiring masks in schools. Similar bans on masks in Florida, Oklahoma, have been suspended pending the outcome of lawsuits seeking to undo them. South Dakota and Oklahoma ban a vaccine mandate. But the JHU researchers found clear variations at the district level and identified 46 cases where district masking or vaccination policies were inconsistent with their state’s policies.

“The discrepancy between state and district policies can lead to trust issues for parents and teachers as they are told one thing from the state, and often quite another from their school district,” Collins said. The tracker also includes information about school-based testing and vaccination availability, and whether virtual/hybrid learning options are offered to students based on state or district mask or vaccination policies.

“While all children have suffered from this pandemic, underprivileged children have suffered the most,” said Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “However, in terms of mask and vaccine policies, the largest differences appear to vary by school district size, rather than poverty or wealth. We found that the largest districts require masks and vaccination from teachers at much higher levels than smaller districts, regardless the poverty level.”

The study also found that, as with other pandemic policies, the governor matters. While 65% of states with Democratic governors require teacher and student masking, only 10% of states with Republican governors do. Similarly, 35% of states with Democratic governors require teachers to have COVID-19 vaccination; 3% of states with Republican governors do.

“The team’s work aims to draw attention to the accumulating data on schools’ COVID-19 policies, and to explore which policies threaten to exacerbate existing inequalities in access to educational resources,” said Annette. Campbell Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe & Healthy Schools and a professor in the School of Education. “We want to share the pulse of what’s happening across the country as policymakers analyze the landscape for 2022 and think about appropriate actions.”

The tracker is updated weekly. The Johns Hopkins eSchool+ Initiative was founded in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic as an interdisciplinary effort to develop guidelines for schools and policy stakeholders to think responsibly and fairly about students during school closures and reopenings. The initiative includes broad representation from the Johns Hopkins Schools of Education, Public Health and Medicine, the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Center for Civic Impact, which brings together expertise in ethics, justice and structural injustice, education, health care in schools , food security and public health policy.

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