U.S. schools struggle with omicron Covid surge as officials push for in-person learning after winter break

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Students make their way to class for the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.
Paul Bersebach | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

High school science teacher Ronnie Almonte and more than a dozen other New York City public school educators protested outside their school Tuesday morning, demanding more Covid testing, improved air filtration and other safety precautions as the nation faces a fresh threat from omicron.

Covid cases in Almonte’s school, Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, reached their highest levels of the semester over the past week and a half, he said.

In his biology class, Almonte estimates half his junior year students are staying home the last few days before winter break, which kicks off this week for many U.S. schools. His students tell him they are not coming in because they or a household member have tested positive for Covid, or out of caution as cases rise at school. 

“We have this feeling of deja vu,” Almonte said. “I don’t know to what extent people really realize the trauma that us educators have from March of 2020.”

Across the U.S., school administrators, teachers, staff, students and their families are facing a resurgence of Covid cases as the omicron variant spreads rapidly. Unlike during previous waves, U.S. officials are pushing for schools to remain open — emboldened by the hope that vaccines will hold up against omicron at keeping people out of the hospital. All children over the age of 5 are eligible for the shot in the U.S.

From the White House to city halls, public officials are promoting Covid tests, vaccines, masks and social distancing to keep students in classrooms.

“Covid-19 is scary, but the science is clear. Children are as safe in schools as they are in any other place, assuming proper precautions have been taken,” President Joe Biden said during a news conference Tuesday.

While educators and parents who spoke with CNBC said they preferred in-person learning, they also worry whether the current public health guidelines will be enough to protect students and staff against the highly transmissible omicron strain.

Test to stay

The Centers for Disease Control is promoting a new strategy it calls “test to stay” that allows students who have been exposed to Covid through a close contact at school to avoid quarantining at home if they test negative. Studies in Los Angeles County, Calif., and Lake County, Ill., show the test-to-stay model resulted in low transmission rates, according to the CDC.

“Test to stay is an encouraging public health practice to help keep our children in school,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a news conference Friday.

Research shows remote learning and Covid-related disruptions negatively impacted children’s academic progress and development last year. Test scores revealed students fell behind, particularly low-income, Black and Hispanic students. Students who learned virtually also fared worse in social and emotional well-being, one study found.

“We must keep schools open for in-person instruction to ensure excellent educational opportunities and strong outcomes for all students, especially those who have been historically underserved and most impacted by the suspension of in-person learning,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said in a statement Monday.

In New York City where the omicron has taken hold, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to avoid any district-wide shutdowns unlike March of 2020 when the largest public school district in the U.S. was shuttered to contain the outbreak. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and California Gov. Gavin Newsom also said keeping schools open was a priority.

Still, individual schools and classrooms may close or move to online learning. More than 800 schools across the U.S. unexpectedly closed this week as of Wednesday, according to Burbio, a website that tracks school closures. The tally marks a sharp surge from the prior weeks, but is still lower than levels seen in November.

More than 500 schools have also announced closures in the first week of January, Burbio found. DC Public Schools plans to extend winter break by two days and offer free rapid antigen tests for families on those days.

Tallmadge City Schools in northeast Ohio shut down earlier this week. The district canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday before the winter recess, citing “the rapid spread of Covid.”

“Closing school is a big deal for us and something we don’t want to do,” Superintendent Steve Wood said. “When we saw the surge and the number of cases, we felt the risk outweighed the benefits of keeping the buildings open.”

Wood said his district has been following Ohio’s “mask-to-stay/test-to-play” model that allows exposed students to stay in school by wearing a mask and getting tested. In the past week, however, Wood said these protocols did not prevent students from developing symptoms.

“Whatever is going on with this variant, the ‘mask-to-stay/test-to-play’ protocol I don’t believe is enough right now with how contagious this variant is,” Wood said.

Students listen to their teacher during their first day of transitional kindergarten at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.
Paul Bersebach | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

Educators also noted the difficulty of enforcing mask mandates and following other public health guidelines, particularly in poorly ventilated and crowded classrooms.

“In our school, we are very overcrowded. It’s ridiculous the idea that a mask is going to protect a kid from omicron,” said Jake Jacobs, an art teacher in a Bronx middle school who said it’s difficult getting students to properly wear masks.

The test-to-stay strategy may not work for every school, and schools should consider community transmission and vaccination levels when deciding whether or not to implement the model, according to the CDC.

“Because test to stay can be resource intensive, it may not be a viable option for every school,” CDC public affairs specialist Jade Fulce said in an email Wednesday. “As more data become available on the effectiveness of prevention strategies in K–12 settings and the impact of the Omicron variant on the K–12 age group, CDC will revisit its recommendations.”

‘Turning point’

While schools and classrooms stay open, some parents might elect to pull their children from school over Covid fears. Attendance was at 73.7% in New York public schools Wednesday, city data show. Thursday is the last day of class for the city’s schools before winter break.

Courtney Cogburn, a professor of social work at Columbia University and New York public school parent, kept her kindergartener at home for the last three days before winter break. Her son is fully vaccinated. However, he takes a bus to school, and Cogburn worried about potential transmission during his commute. Vaccination “wasn’t enough to sway me,” she said, citing breakthrough cases from the omicron variant.

Cogburn said she will monitor case counts and Covid test results when she decides whether to send her son to school after winter break

“I really respect the tricky position that these decision makers are in. It’s difficult, and a lot of people rely on school, not only for their child’s education, but they can’t just take off of work and have their kids come home,” Cogburn said, noting the privilege she has in having more flexibility in her profession.

Almonte, the New York science teacher, expects the holidays will drive transmission when students and staff return to school after the winter break.

“It seems like cases are going to rise, especially after the holidays. This is the worst time for this to happen,” Almonte said.

New York’s incoming comptroller, Brad Lander, said Monday on Twitter that the city should require students, faculty and staff to present a negative Covid test before returning to the classroom in January.

“The return from winter break will be a turning point in this wave of the pandemic,” Lander said. “If we prepare now, it can be one that reduces rather than accelerates infections.”

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