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Officials are determined to keep schools open, despite omicron

A Hollywood, Calif., classroom sits empty in August 2020. At least 2,750 U.S. schools announced they were cancelling in-person learning this week.
Rodin Eckenroth
/
Getty Images
A Hollywood, Calif., classroom sits empty in August 2020. At least 2,750 U.S. schools announced they were cancelling in-person learning this week.

Updated January 3, 2022 at 7:05 PM ET

As the coronavirus pandemic slides into a fifth school semester, there is less appetite than ever among U.S. leaders for schools to go remote, even though cases — and with them, pediatric hospitalizations — are rising. According to Burbio, an organization that tracks individual school and district websites, the vast majority of U.S. schools are staying open for in-person learning this week.

Still, Burbio reports that at least 3,229 schools around the country announced they were canceling in-person learning as of Monday evening. Some announced closures for one week. That includes Atlanta and Fulton County in Georgia and Ann Arbor, Mich. Others are closing for two weeks, including schools in Newark, Paterson and Elizabeth, N.J.; Mount Vernon, N.Y.; Pontiac, Mich.; and Prince George's County, Maryland.

Most districts cited rising cases, but school leaders in Greendale, Wis., told families they simply had too many staff members in quarantine to keep the district open on Monday, and Pittsburgh is also closing a dozen individual schools due to staffing shortages.

Leaders are determined to keep schools open

Around the country, mayors, governors and the U.S. secretary of education have been speaking forcefully in favor of keeping schools open.

"Our expectation is for schools to be open full time for students for in-person learning," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on Fox News Sunday.

Meanwhile, some teachers unions are pushing for delays and stronger safety measures. Some parents and students are worried too.

We opened class talking about how [the students] felt about being in the building. Many of them said they did not feel safe.

Kathryn Rose, a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was teaching at a high school on Monday. She says, "We opened class talking about how [the students] felt about being in the building. Many of them said they did not feel safe."

Chicago's teachers union is set to vote Tuesday on whether to begin teaching remotely Wednesday — without the city's permission.

New York City, home to the largest school district in the country, is reporting about 31,000 cases a day. The head of the city's teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, said in an open letter on Sunday that he advised the mayor that a temporary return to remote learning would be the safest course of action.

No dice. Mayor Eric Adams, who was sworn in on New Year's Day, started his first Monday in office with a news conference held at an elementary school in the Bronx. "We are really excited about the opening of our schools," he said. "And we want to be extremely clear: The safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open."

Schools are turning to vaccines, altered quarantines and tests, tests, tests

Compared with previous semesters, some schools are adjusting how they use vaccines, tests and masks to keep schools open safely.

Vaccines are available for children as young as 5 years old. The Food and Drug Administration has also authorized booster shots for certain immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 and for all children 12 to 17 years old. New Orleans is in the vanguard among districts in announcing a vaccine mandate for students as young as 5 years old, to take effect in February.

Schools are also increasingly relying on rapid tests, which produce results in as little as 15 minutes. These can be used both for detecting cases and for keeping children in school after an exposure, under a protocol that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "test to stay." California's governor has said the state will send 6 million of these tests to schools. New York state officials are sending 3 million to 3.5 million, with 2 million tests to schools in New York City. Connecticut is providing 2 million tests to schools, and Massachusetts more than 227,000.

While these numbers are large, they are nowhere near enough to test everyone multiple times a week, which is the protocol adopted at some workplaces and private schools.

Public health experts are also advising people to upgrade their masks. Los Angeles County is telling school staff to use medical-grade masks, and New York City officials have said they will provide KN95 masks for school staff. But there have been few calls to replace cloth masks among students. And more than a third of districts in Burbio's sample of 500 large districts had no mask mandate at all.

Even where there are mask mandates, two enduring concerns are high school athletics — especially sports like wrestling — and lunchtime. Dr. Danny Benjamin of the ABC Science Collaborative, which advises districts on safety protocols, says, "There's going to be a considerable amount of spread at lunch if people aren't careful with omicron."

While the experts make their recommendations, Kathryn Rose, who is six months pregnant, says she will continue going to the classroom. So will her three children, all in Chicago Public Schools.

"Turn the air purifier up to turbo, wear your mask. I feel that it's important to put students in rooms together, talking and laughing and asking questions."

She says it's a calculated risk.

Joe Palca's reporting appears in the audio version of this story.

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