April 28, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

While it is true that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines for mask-wearing may provide encouragement that doubters need to get vaccinated, will the “vax and relax” message morph into just “relax” without the “vax?”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky points out that new infections and hospitalizations are dropping:

Our seven-day average is just over 54,400 cases per day, and this represents a really hopeful decline of about 21% from our prior seven-day average. The seven-day average of hospital admissions is just over 5,100. Again, a positive sign, with a decrease of about 9% from the previous seven-day period. And the seven-day average of daily deaths also declined to about 660 per day, a decrease of about 6%.

The changes must be good news for restaurants, bars and gyms. But they do not say that you can work in an office around others mask-free even if you and they are vaccinated. They do not free classrooms from using masks. But the CDC’s guidance does say that churches can go back to full capacity if people are vaccinated and wearing masks.


Pretty much, if you are vaccinated, outside and not in a crowd, you can ditch the mask.

Masks at issue in high school sports

A Herriman player wears a mask during a high school football against Davis on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Sometimes a singular incident focuses public attention, like what is happening in Oregon, where a high school runner wearing a mask in a competition collapsed. The incident prompted the Oregon Health Authority to change its guidance to say:

“We are revising the current guidance on the use of masks outdoors during competition,” The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said in a statement. “The guidance will allow people to take off face coverings when competing in non-contact sports outdoors and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others and the other virus protective protocols.”

The exception only applies during competition and not in practice or before and after competition.

Given the CDC’s new guidelines, if the athlete is vaccinated, it would be no problem to run without a mask. But the coverage of this incident may leave people with the false impression that masks reduce blood oxygen levels while people are exercising. Clinical studies have disproven that notion time and again.

After a year of remote learning, thousands of third-graders who can’t pass reading tests will repeat the grade

Tennessee is the latest state to adopt a new mandatory retention law for third-graders who do not pass a reading test.

Politico points out that this kind of law could have profound effects in a pandemic year when so many children have fallen behind in their learning:

Thousands, if not millions, of parents across the U.S. are now wrestling with the question: Does my child need to repeat a grade? But in 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children, but by state officials.

By some estimates, nearly 66 percent of third graders in Tennessee are not meeting English language standards and would be flagged for automatic retention under the new law. Other states have similarly staggering figures. If the laws are applied as written, that suggests hundreds of thousands of American school children may not advance to the next grade, causing bottlenecks in school systems and larger class sizes that could clog the nation’s education system for years to come.

(Michigan State University)

One of the best estimates of what a mandatory retention law would mean to one state comes from researchers at Michigan State University, who estimate:

If Michigan superintendents retained all students who failed to meet the required retention cut-point, between 2% and 5%, 2,000-5,000 students, would be retained in third grade. Between 7% and 11% of Black third graders and between 12% and 20% of students in Partnership Schools, the lowest-performing schools in Michigan, would have to repeat third grade reading.

Proponents of the third-grade reading law point to Florida which, Politico points out, adopted such a policy under Gov. Jeb Bush:

In the short term, there’s evidence these policies can work. Florida’s third-grade reading law — enacted in 2002 and among the first of its kind — boosted the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores within a year and Bush, then the governor, started marketing the policy aggressively across the country.

But several prominent studies have concluded that mandatory retention causes stigma that damages students’ self-esteem and harms their chances of graduating high school or pursuing a college degree.

“It’s a misguided law that was onerous before the pandemic,” Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat and former teacher, said of her state’s retention law. “Now it’s just plain cruel.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures found:

In 1998, California became the first state to require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

By age 3, children from low-income families hear roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This “word gap” has been linked to deficiencies in third-grade literacy skills.

Research demonstrates that students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school. Third grade marks an important turning point, when the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. During this transition, students spend less time learning new reading skills and are instead learning new content and concepts that the reading conveys.

Off with the pandemic locks: hair donation charities are inundated

Leave it to The Washington Post to find a surprisingly interesting story about how charities that accept donated hair are the new hot spot. Partly it is that people need haircuts and partly it is that we all have a need to do something to make the world better.

The Post includes this:

Founder Martino Cartier’s New Jersey-based Wigs & Wishes assembles its wigs for cancer patients on-site — which means its warehouse is, at present, overflowing with hair. It recently received two shipments from a Texas salon that, together, contained 90 pounds of hair — more than it usually receives in a month.

“Oh, my gosh. It looks like a carnival on the last day, after no one cleans it up,” said Cartier, who’s also a hair stylist and salon owner, with a laugh. “I’ve just got wigs everywhere. I got wigs in cabinets. On the countertop. In my office. I just — there’s just wigs, wigs, wigs.”

By the time they trim split ends and weave strands together, it might take six donations to produce one wig.

CNN adds:

Maggie Varney, founder of Maggie’s Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, says the extra ponytails and braids have been “one of the rainbows in the storm.” This year set a new record amount of donations — 487 — for Sparrow Hospital’s annual hair donation drive, many coming from first-time donors in new demographics such as boys and adults.

And longer waits between cuts are turning into highly coveted longer donations, according to JoAn Nicely, founder of Pink Heart Funds in Mississippi. “We’re getting 15-, 16-inch ponytails, which is fabulous, because most of the young girls that want wigs want long wigs,” she said.

Pandemic guidelines: free school lunch for all through June 2022

The Department of Agriculture says when schools reopen to in-person classes in the fall, every student will be eligible for free meals. Administrators say the waiver to make all students eligible for free lunch will cut down on paperwork and logistics in the fall and will make it unnecessary for students to punch in ID codes. It will make it easier to serve meals in classrooms.

USDA says:

Up to 12 million children are currently living in households where they may not always have enough to eat during the pandemic. During the past year, America’s schools and childcare centers have provided a nutrition lifeline for children across the country, many of whom depend on USDA’s child nutrition programs for the nourishment they need to grow and thrive. Some kids rely on these programs for as many as three meals a day, underscoring how essential it is for USDA to empower schools and childcare centers to continue their dedicated efforts to serve healthy meals, safely.

IOC insists the 2020(21) Olympics will go on

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Organizing staff prepare a Paralympic swimming test event at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, one of the venues of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, Monday, April 26, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Japan is on the cusp of a national emergency because of COVID-19 but the International Olympics Committee says it still plans to hold the 2020 Games this summer. The new emergency period runs through May 9. The Nation says, directly, “The Tokyo Olympics are in trouble”:

Anger about the Games is also on the rise in Japan, with “Cancelling Olympics” trending on Twitter there last week. One recent poll found that more than seven in 10 people in Japan do not want the Olympics to happen this summer, with 39 percent preferring outright cancellation and another 33 percent favoring further postponement.

Even some elected officials appear to be waffling. Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, stated on Japanese television, “If it becomes impossible, then it should be called off. What is the point of the Olympics if it’s responsible for spreading infections?” MP Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party said staging the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was flat-out “impossible.” Demand for the cancellation of the Olympics is on the rise.

What is ‘Rule 50’ and why did IOC keep it for the Tokyo Games?

I missed this with all of the news last week — maybe you did, too — but the International Olympics Committee voted to keep enforcing Rule 50, which “protects the neutrality of the sport.” Rule 50 limits demonstrations from athletes and says, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Violators could be sanctioned.

Interestingly, CNN reports, “The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee announced that Team USA athletes would be permitted to hold up a fist, kneel, and wear garments promoting racial and social justice while taking part in all future US Olympic & Paralympic Trials events.”

The IOC did agree to some changes in the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Games. The agreement promises to:

Highlight the importance of solidarity, unity and non-discrimination at the opening and closing ceremonies.

Adapt the Olympic Oath to include messaging on inclusion and non-discrimination.

Below is the proposal for changes to the Olympic Oath (which was approved by the IOC executive board):

“In the name of the athletes”, “In the name of all judges” or “In the name of all the coaches and officials”.

“We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play, inclusion and equality. Together we stand in solidarity and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. We do this for the honour of our teams, in respect for the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and to make the world a better place through sport.”

Inside police training to handle mental health calls

I point you to the work of Whitney Bryen at Oklahoma Watch, who attended a training seminar for police officers to help them learn to deal with calls involving a person who might have a mental illness. About half of the 32 officers who attended the training did so voluntarily and learned about “symptoms and treatment of common psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, suicide, children’s mental health and self-care for police.”

The story is pinned to what Oklahoma Watch discovered through its reporting:

The risk of being killed by police is greater for individuals with untreated mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. A national report found that Oklahoma City and Tulsa are among the deadliest cities in the nation for police killings.

A 2020 Oklahoma Watch investigation found that law enforcement are responding to more mental health crises than ever. In March, Oklahoma City Police responded to 2,024 mental health calls — the highest total on record. But few officers have received the specialized training that prepares them for those emergencies.

The training was developed in the 1980s at the University of Memphis and is considered a national model for crisis response. The course was brought to this state in 2002 by Oklahoma City police following an increase in the agency’s mental health calls.

Bryen’s work reminds us of the value of understanding the challenges that police face even as we report about situations that turn tragic because of an overreaction.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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