As COVID Cases Break Records and Thousands of Schools Close, Families and Educators Struggle — Again — Over Keeping Classrooms Open

Schools in Long Beach, California reopened on Monday, but with reminders for visitors to be wary of COVID. On the same day, the U.S. reported a grim pandemic record of over 1 million new daily cases amid Omicron spread. (Jay L. Clendenin/Getty Images)

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Updated, Jan. 5

With a pandemic record of over 1 million daily COVID cases reported on Monday and more than 3,500 schools this week temporarily closed or pivoted to remote instruction, educators and families are being thrust back into the existential struggle over keeping schools open.

The second half of the 2021-22 school year began with a growing list of shutdowns, including major urban districts such as Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland. In Philadelphia, leaders on Monday night announced that 81 schools would shift to virtual learning on Tuesday, though stopped short of shutting down the entire district.

Other top school systems such as New York City and Chicago have moved forward with plans to reopen in person, but have hit snags along the way: In New York, nearly a third of students did not show up for classes on Monday, and in Chicago, a late night vote Tuesday held by the teachers union demanding to teach remotely forced city schools to cancel classes Wednesday.

The reactions from weary parents ranged widely. “It’s chaos,” National Parents Union President Keri Rodrigues told The New York Times, pointing out that when schools nix plans for in-person learning at the final hour, it leaves families scrambling for child care options. 

On the other hand, with the Omicron variant rampant post-holiday, Cleveland parent Tiffany Rossman was glad schools stayed closed to start the new year. She and her teenage daughter both tested positive for the virus in December, and she fell quite ill despite her vaccination, she told The 74. The mother worried that opening classrooms after the holidays could lead to infected kids spreading the virus.

Rossman acknowledged, however, that “if I had small children and needed to go into the office then I don’t know what I would do.”

While a handful of school systems had planned before the winter break to be remote for short stints in January or to close for testing, the vast majority of announcements were made last minute as record-high COVID case rates came into view. Yonkers Public Schools started classes this week remotely after 25 percent of students who took rapid tests over the holidays were COVID positive. Detroit announced that school would be closed Monday through Wednesday after rapid testing revealed a 36 percent positivity rate. Districts are open for in-person learning in Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but officials there had to shut down eight and 12 school buildings, respectively, for lack of staff.

“A lot of it was last second, and it continues to be,” Dennis Roche, co-founder of the K-12 data tracker Burbio, told The 74.

The Seattle, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. school systems are exceptions to the trend, he noted, as each district had planned before the holidays to take a handful of days in the new year for students to receive rapid tests. As it currently stands, classrooms are set to open in all three districts in the coming days. Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, does not re-open until Jan. 10, but has said it intends to test all students before it does.

Over the weekend, Roche watched Burbio’s school closure tracker jump from 1,591 to 2,181, and again on Tuesday to 3,556. Shutdowns were concentrated in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, where current COVID rates are among the highest in the country.

Amid the chaos, the Biden administration has maintained that schools should keep their doors open wherever possible and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended booster eligibility to two separate groups of children this week.

“I believe schools should remain open,” the president said during a Tuesday address on the current Omicron surge. And in fact, despite some conspicuous closures, the vast majority of the nation’s roughly 98,000 public schools have returned from the holiday break in person. 

Hedging slightly in a conversation on Fox News Sunday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona added: “We recognize there may be some bumps in the road, especially this upcoming week when superintendents, who are working really hard across the country, are getting calls saying that some of their schools may have 5 to 10 percent of their staff not available.”

“For anyone who has gone remote, we want to similarly keep on engaging with them, and make sure that they can come back as quickly as they can,” a senior White House official told The 74 Tuesday.

Federal policymakers underscore that districts can draw on American Rescue Plan dollars as well as multiple other funding channels devoted to helping K-12 facilities stave off COVID through purchasing tests and other mitigation measures.

To help schools stay open, the CDC in December endorsed “test-to-stay” practices allowing students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus to remain in the classroom if they test negative for COVID. 

The federal agency also took the controversial step on Dec. 27 of reducing its recommended quarantine timeline for infected individuals, including teachers and students, from 10 to five days. The move divided many health experts, leaving numerous observers to wonder whether the CDC was prioritizing the economy over public safety after thousands of flights were cancelled over the holidays.

But several school officials appreciated the chance for teachers and students to return more quickly to the buildings.

“Anything that will help the schools to stay open is welcome,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told The 74.

Nationwide, pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations are at a pandemic high. But top infectious disease experts say that the vast majority of serious infections are among unvaccinated youth. Under a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have received a single dose of the COVID vaccine, and just over half of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have been fully immunized, according to data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

​​“Most of our pediatric population is still undervaccinated,” said Kristina Deeter, a physician at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Even though the Omicron variant has generated more breakthrough infections, the pediatrician assured that the vaccines continue to be successful at their key function: preventing severe illness and death.

“We’re still so much safer having received the vaccine,” she told The 74.

For youth who have received both shots and are ready for a booster, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized third doses for 12- to 15-year olds and, on Tuesday, the CDC recommended an extra shot for immunocompromised children as young as 5, five months after the initial two-dose series.

Amid the widespread concern and flurry of new pandemic policies, a bit of good news regarding the giant spike in cases also surfaced on Sunday. In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, the surge in infections driven by the hyper-transmissible strain has begun to subside, giving health experts hope that the U.S may follow a similar course in the weeks to come.

Still, other mutations of the virus may arise further down the road, Deeter pointed out. The only long-term path to move beyond the pandemic, she said, is getting immunized.

“If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s going to come through vaccination.”

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