The fear was familiar.
As news of the latest coronavirus surge spread, fueled in large part by the Omicron edition, parents faced a return to school through a screen, child care crisis and restless young bodies forced to return to school for the winter. were written.
In Manhattan, Olivia Strong received an email Monday from her son’s public middle school informing her that her eighth-grade co-worker would be converting to distance learning because of multiple positive virus cases.
“I was not surprised in the slightest; I fully expected it,” she said with a deep sigh. His hope, he said, was that a short break to reset would allow schools to reopen more safely in the new year.
Districts have reassured most families that they plan to continue in-person learning until the Christmas break and reopen as planned in January, despite targeted classroom closures to stem the spread of the virus. New York City, Boston and Montgomery County, MD, in suburban Washington were among large school systems that said they would not move to distance learning across the district, or would do so only if forced by public health officials.
Still, the alarming spread of the virus could expose the dilapidated infrastructure that has kept schools running for much of this year. Many schools still need substitute teachers and bus drivers, and cannot tolerate an outbreak that will send even more staff members home. There still aren’t enough rapid tests to quickly test entire classes or schools. And some districts may have a harder time keeping up with the demand for online learning as children are abandoned or concerned parents choose to keep them at home.
School officials must simultaneously address the pandemic’s devastating impact on students: academic shortages, mental health struggles and labor shortages.
“It’s going to be a winter of challenging choices for schools, but closing may not be the default,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Despite the targeted classroom closures to contain the spread of the virus, things are going relatively smoothly for schools. This week in the country’s 13,000 districts and 98,000 public schools, there are nearly 600 closed schools or districts, according to data from Barbio, a company that has tracked how schools have operated through the pandemic. There are fewer closures now than in November.
And school outbreaks remain limited, as they have been throughout the pandemic.
New York City, the nation’s largest district and currently most at risk from the Omicron variant, has 1,600 schools; Four are currently locked down due to virus cases, with an additional 44 under investigation.
In a radio interview on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio noted that the city’s schools had a coronavirus test positivity rate of 1 percent while the citywide community positivity rate was over 5 percent.
The picture was so bright that many schools eased virus restrictions in recent weeks.
Several school districts in Florida dropped their mask mandates. New Jersey eased school quarantine rules, stripping them of community transmission rates and reducing the number of stay-at-home days for students who had close contact with an infected person.
And in Missouri, the attorney general, a Republican, sent a letter to districts instructing them to waive mask mandates and quarantine requirements after a circuit court judge ruled that such measures scuttled the state. violated the constitution. Many districts are protesting, perhaps a sign that there may be political differences after the holidays, when schools weigh whether to reopen classes after family gatherings that will almost certainly make the current surge more serious. will make
Washington, DC has already extended its vacation by two days, directing families To take rapid tests in schools and to test students before returning to class.
But Prince George is an outlier; The political will to keep schools open is noteworthy given that many of the states with the most virus cases are in the Northeast and Midwest, which have powerful teachers’ unions. He spent much of the time fighting the pandemic thanks to strict mitigation measures and a long period of distance learning.
This time, union leaders in New York, Boston and Philadelphia said they were not calling for distance learning across the district, and were instead focusing on pushing administrators to implement virus mitigation measures.
But in an interview Friday, Chicago Teachers Association vice president Stacey Davis Gates didn’t rule out pushing for a period of distance learning after the holidays.
She argued that the district’s contact tracing efforts were sluggish and that the city should do more to vaccinate students and parents on a school basis and provide families with free, rapid at-home testing.
That said, many schools had already struggled with a large number of absent staff members due to the virus. “What number do you say is unsafe for people to live in a building without X number of adults?” He asked.
Chicago Public Schools said in a written statement that following the holiday that began Friday, it would resume a free, weekly PCR testing program in schools and “urge families to consent to testing.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday encouraged schools to reduce quarantines and closures by using a protocol called test-to-stay, in which close contacts are consistently given rapid tests; Only those who test positive should stay at home.
Many districts do not have an adequate supply of such tests, nor do they have the staff to conduct them extensively. Chicago operates test-to-stay in a single elementary school. Boston Public School said last week it had hired an outside staffing agency to help fill open nursing positions.
Another challenge is that many parents have not given consent for their children to be tested for the virus at school. Some teacher unions have urged districts to move from a protocol of parental opt-in to one of parental opt-out.
“If there’s a positive case in a classroom, everyone should get tested,” said Boston Teachers Union vice president Eric Berg. “If our universities and colleges can test everyone on campus twice per week, it says a lot about our commitment to K-12 education that we can’t even test people we know That there were positive cases for six or seven in the same room. hours.”