For school leaders across the country, it’s the holiday gift no one wanted: The hyper-contagious new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading through their communities and into their hallways, forcing hundreds to shut down, just days before winter break.
District leaders are wrestling with the decision to keep schools open or flip to remote learning on an increasingly intolerant landscape. In the second year of the pandemic, public pressure to keep K-12 schools open has mounted, based on the advice of public-health experts, and pressure by parents and political leaders, who argue that closing K-12 schools is more likely to hurt children, academically and emotionally, than keeping them open and managing the virus.
Those sentiments turn up the agony levels for superintendents as they watch children fall ill, and employee absences or shortages render them unable to staff classrooms or operate cafeteria lines.
“There’s a Grand Canyon’s gap between policy and practice,” said Monica Henson, the superintendent of the Oxford Hills district in western Maine, which put one of its eight elementary schools in remote-learning mode a few days before winter break because COVID was spreading so quickly in the school. “I’ve got to take policy pronouncements with a whole shaker of salt.”
In the blink of an eye, Omicron has changed the COVID calculus, doubling new-case rates in a matter of days in some places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that Omicron is now the country’s dominant variant: It accounts for 73 percent of all new cases, up from 12.6 percent the week before.
Its alarming rise led President Joe Biden to announce a major push on Tuesday to expand access to get more people vaccinated and boosted, support hospital capacity and expand COVID testing, including access to at-home rapid-antigen tests. He used his platform to urge schools to stay open, saying that rising vaccination rates, vaccine availability for all school-age children, and federal support for school mitigation strategies can help.
“Last year, we thought the only way to keep children 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 firm that’s been tracking COVID-related school closures, documented 723 schools that shifted to remote learning or closed early for winter break as of Dec. 19. That’s up from 389 a week earlier, and nearly matches the closure rate of late August and early September, when Delta was driving spikes in new cases.
The Youngstown, Ohio, city district shifted all 14 of its schools to remote learning the week ahead of its winter break, but it wasn’t because COVID was running rampant among its 5,000 students. One-third of the staffers in the district’s central kitchen came down with COVID.
“We couldn’t feed our kids,” said district CEO Justin Jennings. “It was that simple.”
In New York’s Oswego City schools, a combination of staffing shortages and COVID cases led the district to flip to remote learning a week before its winter break. In a letter Dec. 15, Superintendent Mathis Calvin III said the district documented 60 new cases in just a few days.
Some schools that closed or flipped to remote this month have already decided to extend closures into January. Prince George’s County, Md., a district outside Washington D.C., and one of the few large districts to close all its schools, flipped to remote mode right before break, Dec. 20 to 23, because of a “stark rise” in the number of COVID cases, and doesn’t plan to return to in-person instruction until mid-January.
Almost immediately, in a potent example of the crosscurrents districts must navigate as they deal with COVID, the leaders of Prince George’s own state issued an emphatic statement about their views on such closures.
School districts, the Maryland Department of Education said, have the flexibility to close schools, but only “under the most exigent of circumstances,” and they must “immediately and aggressively” work to bring students back to face-to-face learning as soon as possible.
Will schools have to revert to remote learning?
Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and a professor of pediatric infectious disease at Northwestern University, said the most recent wave of school closures could be a sign of things to come in January.
“There are some school districts that are doing virtual learning for part of January to get a better sense of where the pandemic is headed. It may be that if cases continue to surge that schools may have to go back to virtual learning,” she said.
But Monica Ghandi, a professor of medicine and an infectious-disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco, urged school leaders to shift their thinking. COVID-19 isn’t going away, she said, so it’s time to focus on managing the virus in schools rather than trying to prevent it entirely.
“I get the pressure on heads of school and superintendents, since Omicron is so much more transmissible,” she said. “But to think we can control a highly transmissible respiratory virus by shutting down, especially with Omicron, is like trying to control the wind or the sun. I’d 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 instruction, and manage COVID with a layered approach that includes masking, hand-washing, improved ventilation, social distancing, and vaccination. Last week, the CDC also gave its blessing to test-to-stay programs, which use COVID testing to let even unvaccinated, asymptomatic students remain in school instead of quarantining at home. Children exposed to the virus would be tested at least twice a week, and if they’re negative, they can stay in school.
Facing the complexities on the front lines
But harnessing all available mitigation strategies doesn’t always play out in reality the way it does on paper. In Oxford Hills, Henson said that some of the most potent strategies that can help schools stay open are frustratingly out of her control.
“I agree that we do know how to keep schools open,” said Henson. “The problem is, we can’t get everyone to do what science says we need to do. So we keep having these outbreaks. There are people who won’t vaccinate, people who don’t support masking, and they take their children out and expose them, and we end up with it coming into school.”
Nationally, about 7 in 10 adults are fully vaccinated, a rate that’s closer 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 gotten the jabs. In some counties, vaccination rates hover below 30 percent.
The youngest school-age children, those 5 to 11, only recently got cleared to receive the vaccine, and about 13 percent are fully inoculated, compared to 53 percent among those 12 to 17, according to the CDC. Vaccine mandates—rare among K-12 districts—can also go awry: Los Angeles Unified recently had to delay its student-vaccine mandate after 34,000 students failed to meet the deadline.
In Oxford Hills, Henson has been doing the best she can to manage COVID with an indoor-masking policy, six-foot social distancing, pool-testing, and other CDC mitigation strategies. But when the district’s physician determined that 70 percent of the cases at one of her schools, Otisfield Community School, had been transmitted within the school, she felt she had no choice but to shift it to remote learning.
Even when 102 of the 116 students at Otisfield were isolating or quarantining because of the virus, Henson said, the school stayed open, since staff remained relatively untouched. Once the school emerged as the source of infection, however, that changed.
“I can’t have that,” Henson said. “When school is where kids are getting COVID? No.”