As Omicron surges, schools, businesses remain closed
Schools across the country are facing mounting obstacles to holding in-person classes due to the omicron variant causing infections to spike and leaving schools short-staffed.
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Classes were canceled for the fourth day in Chicago on Monday as negotiations continued between union leaders and city officials over how to safely provide for in-person learning in the country’s third-largest school district amid a surge in coronavirus infections.
“Out of fairness and consideration for parents who need to prepare, classes will be canceled again Monday,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted late Sunday. “Although we have been negotiating hard throughout the day, there has not been sufficient progress for us to predict a return to class tomorrow.”
The latest proposal from the Chicago Teachers Union includes a district-wide return to remote learning until at least Jan. 18 and a COVID-19 screening program that tests 10% of students and staff every week at every school and allows students to opt out of the randomized test – instead of opting in. It’s also pushing for a policy that would return individual schools to remote learning when 25% or more of staff are absent due to COVID-19 infections, when 30% or more of children in an elementary school test positive and when 25% or more of students in a high school test positive.
But Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez have been emphatic that they will not bless a district-wide pivot to virtual learning, which research shows led to significant academic loss and set in motion a severe mental health crisis among adolescents.
“We haven’t sat idly by and let COVID rage through our schools,” Lightfoot said earlier Sunday during an interview on “Meet the Press.” “When there’s been a necessity to shut down a classroom or shut down a school, to go to remote learning, we’ve done that.”
Negotiation continued on Monday with both sides verbalizing a commitment to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, schools across the country are experiencing mounting obstacles to remaining in person due to the highly transmissible omicron variant causing infections to spike and leaving schools short-staffed, especially among the country’s big city school systems.
According to the school tracking site Burbio, school closures reached their highest total of the academic year last week. On Dec. 31, the site had tracked 1,591 schools that announced closures or virtual instruction for the first week in January – last week – but by the end of the week it had identified 5,409.
More than 90 schools in Philadelphia are pivoting to virtual, as is the entirety of Jefferson County, Kentucky's largest school district that serves 100,000 students. Students in Maryland’s Baltimore County are doing independent school work on Monday and Tuesday as educators at the district’s 178 schools prepare for remote school should the district decide to shift its learning model.
Schools are still virtual in Detroit, where the city's positivity rate hovers around 40%. Students there are tentatively scheduled to return to in-person learning Jan. 18.
In an interesting new strategy being deployed this week by some schools in Maryland’s Montgomery County, students who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or vaccinated with symptoms of the coronavirus are asked to stay home this week for remote learning, while vaccinated children with no symptoms are headed to school.
Meanwhile, children in Los Angeles headed back to school Monday amid the highest infection rate ever for staff and students – 13.5%, which is 10 times what it was prior to winter break. Students and staff are required to test before returning to classrooms.
“We’re trying to do as much as possible to ensure we maintain the highest safety standards in our schools,” interim Superintendent Megan Reilly told reporters. “We keep our schools safer than the general public. As far as I’m concerned, I want everyone back in school.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams and school Chancellor David Banks are employing the same strategy, keeping schools open and operating in person since returning students last week – even as staff shortages mount and student attendance rate plummeted to 44.5% on Friday.
In an attempt to lessen the impact of staff shortages, last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for how students, teachers and school staff should quarantine and isolate if they test positive or have been exposed to the coronavirus – shortening its recommendation from 10 days to five days.
The shift mirrors quarantine and isolation guidance the center updated for health care workers and the general public and comes as more school districts also adopt the CDC’s test-to-stay policy – a separate set of recommendations that allow staff and students who have been exposed to the coronavirus but are asymptomatic to continue to go to school as long as they test negative at least twice in the following week.
“I know that many teachers and parents have concerns about the omicron variant,” CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy said on a press call Friday. “Coming back after the holiday break, many schools returned to virtual learning because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in their communities, largely due to the omicron variant.”
“Our updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine and our prior publications and continued assessment of test-to-stay protocols in schools provide the tools necessary to get these schools reopened for in-person learning and to keep them open for the rest of the school year,” she said.
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