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As Omicron Surges, Schools Battle Pressure to Stay Open

For school leaders across the country, it’s the holiday gift no one wants: A new, highly contagious variant of COVID-19 is spreading Omicron in their communities and in their corridors, forcing hundreds to close, just days before the winter break.

District leaders are grappling with the decision to keep schools open or move to distance learning in an increasingly intolerant environment. In the second year of the pandemic, public pressure to keep K-12 schools open, advised by public health experts, and by parents and political leaders, who argue that closing K-12 schools is more likely to hurt children academically and emotionally rather than keep them open and manage the virus, has mounted. .

These feelings raise pain levels for supervisors when they watch children get sick, and the absence or shortage of staff renders them unable to work in classrooms or operate cafeteria lines.

“There is a gap in the Grand Canyon between policy and practice,” said Monica Henson, director of the Oxford Hills area of ​​western Maine, which put one of its eight elementary schools into distance learning a few days before the winter break because COVID was spreading so quickly in the school. “I should take policy statements with a pinch of salt.”

In the blink of an eye, Omicron has changed the COVID calculus, doubling rates of new cases within days in some places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Monday that Omicron is now the dominant alternative in the country: It represents 73 percent of all new cases, up from 12.6 percent the previous week.

The alarming rise prompted President Joe Biden to announce a major push Tuesday to expand access to vaccinate more people, boost hospital capacity, and expand COVID testing, including access to rapid at-home antigen tests. He used his platform to urge schools to stay open, saying that high vaccination rates, vaccine availability for all school-age children, and federal support for mitigation strategies in schools could help.

“Last year, we thought the only way to keep kids safe was to close their schools,” Biden said. “Today we know more and we have the tools to keep schools open.”

But schools are closing nonetheless. Burbio, a company that tracks school closings related to the COVID virus, has documented 723 schools that have switched to remote learning or closed early for winter recess as of December 19. and early September, when Delta was leading spikes in new cases.

There is a gap at the Grand Canyon between policy and practice. I must take policy statements with extreme caution.

Monica Henson, Superintendent, Oxford Hills District, South Paris, Maine

The Youngstown, Ohio, city-area switched all 14 of its schools to distance learning in the week before the winter break, but that wasn’t due to the spread of the coronavirus among its 5,000 students. A third of workers in the district’s central kitchen have contracted the coronavirus.

We just couldn’t feed our kids,” said Justin Jennings, district chief executive. “It was that simple.”

In Oswego, New York’s schools, a combination of staff shortages and COVID cases in the area has led to a switch to distance learning a week before winter break. In a letter dated December 15, Superintendent Mattis Calvin III said the district had documented 60 new cases in a few days.

Some schools that have closed or are relocated this month have already decided to extend the closure until January. Prince George’s County, Maryland, an area outside Washington, D.C., and one of the few large counties that closed all of their schools, flipped into remote mode just before the break, on December 20-23, due to a “sharp spike” in the number of COVID cases, and does not plan to return. To personal guidance until mid-January.

Almost immediately, in a powerful example of cross-current areas to navigate as they deal with COVID, Prince George’s state leaders issued an emphatic statement about their views on such closures..

The Maryland Department of Education said school districts have flexibility to close schools, but only “under the most urgent circumstances,” and should act “immediately and aggressively” to get students back into face-to-face learning as soon as possible.

Will schools have to return to distance learning?

The latest wave of school closures may be a sign of things to come in January, said Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Lowry Children’s Hospital in Chicago and professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Northwestern University.

“There are some school districts doing virtual learning for part of January to get a better idea of ​​the direction the pandemic is headed. If cases continue to rise, schools may have to go back to virtual learning,” she said.

But Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, urged school leaders to change their thinking. She said COVID-19 won’t go away, so it’s time to focus on managing the virus in schools rather than trying to prevent it entirely.

“I get pressure on principals and supervisors, because Omicron is more portable,” she said. But thinking about our ability to control this highly transmissible respiratory virus by shutting down, especially with Omicron, is like trying to control the wind or the sun. I hate to think our default position is to close schools, because the mental health effects are real.”

The CDC continues to urge schools to prioritize in-person education, and manage COVID through a multi-tiered approach that includes concealment, hand washing, improved ventilation, social distancing, and vaccination. Last week, the CDC also gave its blessing to survival testing programs, which is using COVID testing to allow even unvaccinated and asymptomatic students to stay in school instead of being quarantined at home. Children exposed to the virus will be tested at least twice a week, and if they are negative, they can stay in school.

Facing the complexities on the fronts

But harnessing all available mitigation strategies is not always the same in reality as it does on paper. At Oxford Hills, Henson said some of the most effective strategies that can help schools stay open are frustratingly out of her control.

“I agree that we know how to keep schools open,” Henson said. “The problem is that we can’t get everyone to do what the science says we need to do. So we keep getting these outbreaks. There are people who don’t get vaccinated, people who don’t support masking, they take out their kids and expose them, and we end up as we go to school.”

Nationwide, about 7 in 10 adults are fully vaccinated, a rate close to 90 percent for K-12 teachers. But it varies wildly by location: 46 percent of adults in Idaho are vaccinated, while 76 percent of those in Vermont have. In some counties, vaccination rates are as low as 30 percent.

The youngest school-age children, those ages 5 to 11, were only recently allowed to receive the vaccine, and about 13 percent were fully vaccinated, compared to 53 percent among those ages 12 to 17, according to the CDC. diseases. Vaccine mandates — rare among primary and secondary school districts — could also go awry: Unified Los Angeles recently had to delay mandating a vaccine to students after 34,000 students failed to meet the deadline.

In Oxford Hills, Henson has gone to great lengths to manage COVID with an indoor masking policy, six-foot social distancing, pool testing, and other CDC mitigation strategies. But when the district doctor decided that 70 percent of cases at one of her schools, Otisfield Community School, were transferred within the school, she felt she had no choice but to switch them to distance learning.

Even when 102 of 116 students in Otisfield were isolated or quarantined because of the virus, Henson said, the school remained open, with staff remaining relatively untouched. But once school emerged as a source of infection, that changed.

“I can’t have that,” Henson said. “When school is where kids get COVID? No.”

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