‘It’s chaos’ as schools take on Omicron

The Omicron wave threatens to upset any sense of peace in the country’s education system.

After a holiday break that saw Covid-19 cases rise steadily, a small but growing list of districts – including Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland – have temporarily switched to distance learning for more than 450,000 children .

District-wide closures, even those lasting a week or two, are a step backwards after months in which classrooms remained widely open, even during a fall wave of the Delta variant.

And although politicians, including Mayor Eric Adams of New York and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, promised to keep schools open, parents and educators were increasingly concerned that more districts would soon turn to the distance learning – although school transmission of Le Covid-19 has been limited.

These decisions could, in turn, radiate across the country, affecting child care, employment, and any confidence that the grip of the pandemic loosens.

“It’s chaos,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Union of Parents, which has interviewed families throughout the pandemic. “The main thing parents and families are crying out for is stability. “

Some families were given only days, if not hours, of notice about school closures, leading to the all-too-familiar pandemic rush to adjust childcare arrangements and work schedules. Atlanta public schools, for example, announced Saturday that classes would be online during the first week of January, just days after announcing that classes would be held in person.

Ms Rodrigues’ own sons were home Monday morning after their schools in Somerville, Mass. On Saturday announced a two-hour delayed start to test staff and distribute KN95 masks.

The continued burden on parents nationwide is unacceptable, Ms. Rodrigues said, given that a winter surge of the virus was foreseeable and policymakers had months to secure and distribute tests and masks.

“No grace is given to us,” she said of parents who should go out to work, whether their children’s schools are open or not.

The academic, social and emotional toll of school closures has been enormous and well documented. In the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, the question of whether children should be in classrooms was one of the most controversial in American life. Today, politicians, union leaders and teachers overwhelmingly say they want classrooms to stay open.

A large majority of school districts across the country – including most of the larger ones – appear to be functioning relatively normally. Still, the closures this week appeared to be concentrated in areas, such as the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where Democratic Party policymakers and teacher unions have taken a more cautious approach to running schools throughout. of the pandemic.

The country is recording, on average, more than 400,000 new cases per day for the first time of the pandemic, although hospitalizations are increasing at a much slower rate. Many principals have reported large numbers of staff calling sick because they are infected with Covid-19 or other illnesses, caring for sick family members or fearing conditions in school buildings.

Several of the closed districts primarily serve black, Hispanic and low-income students, raising concerns about the educational gaps that have widened during previous phases of the pandemic.

“There is a flippancy with which some have approached the closure of schools which I find deeply concerning, precisely because of the severe damage we have seen accumulate over the past year when schools have been closed,” said Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard University who studies indoors. environmental quality, including in schools.

Yet in New York City, where schools were open, about a third of students did not show up, suggesting significant parental reluctance.

And there are signs that some unions are becoming more reluctant to teach in person. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union are preparing to vote Tuesday on whether to refuse to attend schools from the next day. The union, which has repeatedly clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, had demanded that every student be tested for the virus before returning from winter vacation, a step the district failed to take.

The district, one of the largest in the country, instead gave tens of thousands of students optional PCR tests to take away before winter break, which parents were supposed to bring in a FedEx drop box.

On Monday, it became clear that the testing effort had largely failed. Of 35,590 tests recorded by the district during the week ending Saturday, 24,843 had invalid results. Of the minority of tests that produced results, 18% were positive.

A district official said test providers were looking for reasons for the inconclusive results.

At a press conference on Monday, union vice president Stacy Davis Gates expressed anger at having to “constantly fight for basic necessities, basic mitigation measures.”

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis reiterated Monday that authorities will not allow the state’s public schools to close, despite a major spike in coronavirus cases.

“You have worse results closing schools,” said Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has raised his national profile by rejecting lockdowns and coronavirus mandates during much of the pandemic. “Children need to be in school. “

Plus, DeSantis said, kids “don’t need to do crazy mitigation” like testing or wearing masks, unless their parents want them to. He added, “Just let them be kids.”

In the New York City area, there was a growing divide between the city, where nearly all schools opened Monday morning with tightened virus testing protocols, and the surrounding area, where a growing list of small districts moved to distance learning, generally citing the growing number of cases of Covid-19 in the community – not specific cases of the virus spreading at school.

Newark School Board President Dawn Haynes said in a statement, “The lives of all of our students mean more to me than anything else, especially since three of them are actually mine.”

In New Rochelle, NY, school principal Jonathan P. Raymond wrote in a December 31 letter that a distance learning week would allow the district to wait for a delivery of rapid tests from the state. and enroll more students for school supervision tests.

Some schools announcing their decision to temporarily close have cited the closure of other districts, adding to the unease feeling over the fall of dominoes. When the superintendent of Mt. Vernon, NY, announced a two-week distance learning period, he pointed to the closure of some schools in Maryland, where, on December 17, Prince George County became the first major district to announce an extension switch to virtual education.

While Omicron is more contagious than previous iterations of the virus, early indications point to it being less severe as well. Dr Allen, of Harvard, said existing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still keep schools operating safely, especially because children are at low risk of serious complications from Covid-19. These measures include vaccination, masking, hand washing, the use of portable air filters and cracking of windows.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine boosters for 12 to 15 year olds, but vaccination rates for children and adolescents have been disappointing in many places.

The CDC also recommends a strategy called test to stay, in which close contacts of positive virus cases are given frequent rapid tests; only those who test positive should stay home.

But many schools still don’t have the number of rapid antigen tests they need.

Dr Allen acknowledged that rapid tests were rare.

“We’ve been calling for rapid testing for a year and a half,” he said. “I find it amazing that the country has failed to put children first.”

Yet many parents said despite the difficulties of the closures, they trusted their children’s schools to make the right choice.

Lorenzo Spencer, whose son is a freshman at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, said he was not surprised by the district’s announcement of a three-day closure – with no distance learning – to test its 8,000 employees.

“There is no manual for what we are going through,” Mr Spencer said. “As long as they are doing what they can to stay safe, I totally agree.”

The report was provided by Giulia Heyward, Patricia mazzei, Tariro Mzezewa, Eliza shapiro and Mitch smith.

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