The omicron variant is posing the biggest challenge for schools to date, threatening in-person learning and upending a year where classrooms have mostly remained open.
Some major school districts shifted to remote learning just ahead of the winter holidays with plans to continue through the first few weeks of January, while others made last-minute decisions driven by surging COVID-19 infections and staff shortages.
There is immense public pressure to keep schools open, a sentiment shared by politicians on both sides of the aisle from President BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisWhy not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? DeSantis says he disagreed with Trump's decision to shut down economy at start of pandemic Trump says politicians who won't confirm boosters are 'gutless' MORE (R) and newly-elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D).
“We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That’s why I believe schools should remain open,” Biden said in remarks Jan. 4 before a briefing with his COVID-19 advisers
Biden encouraged schools to use funds from the American Rescue Plan to improve ventilation, testing and social distancing. But he acknowledged that some schools haven’t used the funds for these purposes.
“States and school districts have spent this money well – many of them – but unfortunately, some haven't,” Biden said. “So I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding that you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.”
Despite the wide availability of vaccines, there are still districts with high numbers of unvaccinated staff and students, especially in states that prohibit schools from having vaccine requirements.
There are not nearly enough tests for students and teachers in many districts, and as omicron continues to spread, there are concerns of even more closures ahead.
Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he thinks holiday gatherings helped to drive up positivity rates, and the hope is that infections level off in the next few weeks.
“I think what added fuel to the fire was the fact that we had the holiday period and so many people were coming together in person and traveling and seeing families and getting infected in the process,” Domenech said. “So hopefully with the holidays over, now we're getting back to a period of time where this thing will play itself out.”
Many public health experts say school closures should only be a last resort, but the infectiousness of omicron has made that difficult.
“If you have masking in your school district, you don't have a good medical reason to close schools unless … you cannot have enough adults in the building.” said Daniel Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics and clinical researcher at Duke University School of Medicine.
“If you vaccinate your kids, their risk of bad outcome, morbidity and mortality is less than that for influenza. So if you stayed open in the winter of 2018, you should be open in the winter of 2022. Full stop,” he said.
More than 5,000 schools were closed for in-person learning for at least one day during the week beginning January 2nd, according to Burbio, which tracks school closures.
Annette Campbell Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and deputy director of the university’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said she thinks people were caught off guard by the sudden emergence of omicron, and it showed that many districts still haven’t learned how to handle teaching in the age of the coronavirus.
“I think that everyone got lulled into a sense of complacency, that we had an understanding of what the virus now looks like,” Anderson said. “We saw people getting vaccinated this fall, we saw eligibility for our elementary age students to become vaccinated, and so there was a lot of optimism ... and I think that we have been humbled once again, that we are not in charge of this.”
The concern was amplified this week in Chicago, where the powerful teachers union decided against returning to in-person learning. In a vote held the night before they were supposed to return from winter break, the union said 73 percent of rank-and-file members opted to pause in-person learning until Jan. 18 or until COVID rates subside.
The union said the spiking COVID cases, staff shortages and a botched take-home testing requirement have made it unsafe to teach in person.
School administrators refused to allow teachers access to their virtual classrooms, and schools have been shut down for the week as a result of the impasse. It’s unclear what will happen next week, as the union continues to bargain.
“Let’s be clear here regarding Chicago schools – no one wants schools closed,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted on Wednesday. “Educators want to be in the classroom with students, where they learn best. We do that through working together to roll out testing, masking, and vaccination – and most major districts have done it.”
While Chicago is an extreme example, Domenech said staff shortages are a major problem.
“Huge, huge issues with districts and schools not being able to accommodate the student population in person because they don't have sufficient staff. And that can be because either the staff is getting sick, or they refuse to come to work,” Domenech said.
One of the sticking points in Chicago is testing. The district sent home hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests with families, but only a fraction have been logged, and most were inconclusive, leaving educators in the dark about the true rate of transmission.
Anderson said it’s a problem when school districts try to set their own thresholds because there’s too much variation and not enough transparency.
“There has to be a national system to understand what is a safe threshold of COVID cases in schools, so that we can know if our schools are actually safe or not. Parents are frustrated, teachers are frustrated, because no one really knows what the level of COVID is in our schools,” she said.