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Educators, health experts ask lawmakers to help keep schools open

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With new COVID-19 cases among U.S. children topping 200,000 a week – now accounting for more than a quarter of all cases reported nationwide – members of a U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday examining the challenges schools are facing as the delta variant continues to surge.

Among the witnesses was Jesus Jara, Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara. In testimony about how the district has navigated the pandemic and what it needs going forward, Jara said the pandemic has exacerbated staff shortages.

“We need more substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians,” he told the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. “All of these vacancies are putting instruction, extracurricular activities and maintenance of our district assets at risk.”

And that shortage, Jara said, has the district's workforce stretched thin.

“I’ve got principals that are substituting classrooms, that are serving foods, just to try to keep our kids engaged and our children in classrooms,” he said.

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Another witness, Brown University public health professor Ashish Jha, pointed out — you can watch his testimony here — that COVID-19 continues to be one of the top 10 causes of death among children, and he argued that school districts should require all adult staff to be vaccinated.

“Vaccines are the most effective weapon we have in this pandemic,” Jha said. “Schools should require all adult staff to be vaccinated and should strongly encourage kids who are eligible to get vaccinated.”

He also pushed for universal mask-wearing and increased testing and contact tracing in school districts.

Freelance journalist David Zweig, who has written critically about school mask mandates in New York Magazine, was invited by Republicans to testify. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who earlier this month issued a rule urging schools to let kids opt out of wearing masks, drew heavily from one of Zweig's articles to suggest that the science around the protectiveness of masks in schools is inconclusive. The rule was roundly condemned by the medical community.

COVID-19 has killed roughly 500 American children since the pandemic began, according to the latest joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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