The omicron surge threatens to destabilize the nation’s educational system.
Following a Christmas break in which Covid-19 instances skyrocketed, a small but rising number of districts, including Newark, New Jersey, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, switched to remote learning for more than 450,000 students.
Districtwide shutdown, even if just for a week or two, are a step back after months of schools being mostly open, even amid an autumn surge of the delta form.
Although politicians such as New York Mayor Eric Adams and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis committed to keep schools open, there were rising worries among parents and educators that more districts will soon switch to remote learning — despite the fact that in-school transmission of Covid-19 has been prohibited.
These decisions may reverberate throughout the country, impacting child care, jobs, and any hope that the pandemic’s viselike hold was weakening.
“It’s chaos,” Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, which has polled families during the epidemic, said. “The most important thing that parents and families want is stability.”
Some families had only a few days, if not hours, warning of school closures, resulting in the all-too-familiar pandemic scurry to modify child-care arrangements and work schedules.
For example, Atlanta Public Schools stated on Saturday that lessons will be taught online for the first week of January, just days after announcing that sessions would be done in person.
Rodrigues’ boys returned home on Monday morning after their schools in Somerville, Massachusetts, announced a two-hour delay to test staff and distribute KN95 masks on Saturday.
According to Rodrigues, the ongoing burden on parents across the country is unconscionable, considering that the virus’s winter rise was foreseeable and authorities had months to procure and distribute testing and masks.
“There is no grace extended to us,” she added of parents who would have to go to work regardless of whether their children’s schools were open.
The intellectual, social, and emotional costs of school closures have been thoroughly documented. And, after a turbulent first year of the epidemic, when the fight about opening schools was one of the most controversial in American history, politicians, labor leaders, and teachers now agree that school facilities should remain open.
The great majority of the nation’s school systems, including the majority of the largest, appear to be working quite regularly, thanks in large part to immunizations.
Nonetheless, the cancellations this week appeared to be focused in areas where Democratic Party leaders and teachers unions have been more cautious about keeping schools open during the epidemic, such as the Northeast and upper Midwest.
For the first time in the epidemic, the country is averaging more than 300,000 new cases each day, albeit hospitalizations are increasing at a considerably slower rate. Many administrators have reported huge numbers of staff members calling in sick due to Covid-19 or other infections, caring for sick family members, or being concerned about the environment in school facilities.
Several of the closed districts mostly serve Black, Hispanic, and low-income pupils, raising worries about educational inequities that grew during prior periods of the epidemic.
“There is a casualness with which some have approached closing schools that I find deeply concerning, precisely because of the severe harms we’ve seen accumulate over the past year when schools were closed,” said Joseph Allen, a Harvard University professor who studies indoor environmental quality, which includes school environments.
Nonetheless, in New York City, when schools were open, around one-third of the youngsters did not attend, indicating great parental reluctance.
There are also indications that certain unions are becoming increasingly averse to in-person instruction. The Chicago Teachers Union is planning a vote on Tuesday to decide whether to refuse to report to school beginning Wednesday.
The union, which has had several run-ins with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, had asked that every kid be tested for the virus before returning from Christmas break, which the district did not do.
Instead, the district, which is one of the largest in the country, offered tens of thousands of pupils optional take-home PCR tests before Christmas break, which parents were meant to hand off at a FedEx drop box.
On Monday, it was evident that the testing effort had been mainly ineffective. In the week ended Saturday, the district registered 35,590 tests, of which 24,843 had incorrect findings.
Pfizer’s vaccine boosters for 12 to 15-year-olds were approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Monday, although child and adolescent immunization rates have been unsatisfactory in many locations.
The CDC also advises a test-to-stay policy, in which close contacts of positive virus patients are subjected to regular quick testing; only those who test positive must remain at home.
However, many schools continue to lack the necessary number of fast exams.