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In face of omicron surge, schools push ahead with in-person classes

The nation is dotted with closures and delays, but the overwhelming majority of schools are reopening

In New York City, where cases rose more than 500 percent in the last 14 days, public schools reopened as planned on Jan. 3. (Video: Reuters)

Even as coronavirus caseloads hit record levels, school districts across the country are reopening for in-person learning this week, mindful of the damage that remote education inflicted last year and determined to avoid a repeat.

Districts continued to battle staff shortages that have beset schools all year, and there was a familiar scramble for parents in many communities as districts delayed the start of school to allow for coronavirus testing of students and staff.

Some districts announced a return to online school due to a spike in cases, including large systems in Cleveland, Atlanta and Newark. But the vast majority of schools opened Monday or plan to reopen this week, determined to avoid the academic, logistical and social-emotional disruptions that came with remote learning.

In New York City, where cases rose more than 500 percent in the last 14 days, students returned from winter break on Monday. Newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams visited an elementary school in the Bronx to emphasize that classes in the nation’s largest district will remain in person.

“We want to be extremely clear: The safest place for our children is a school building,” Adams said. “And we are going to keep our schools open and ensure that our children are safe in a safe environment.” He added that the coronavirus transmission rate last school year was less than 1 percent, while at home, children faced many other risks. Remote learning was “terrible for poorer communities,” he said.

The Biden administration, too, is adamant about the importance of the classroom. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is urging districts to operate in person, and his agency is distributing material to help put safety protocols into place.

Of the 20 largest school districts, just one — Prince George’s County, Md. — has said it will conduct classes remotely. Officials there say classes will be remote through Jan. 14.

Burbio, a data firm that tracks school closures, found 2,753 schools closed for in-person classes this week, with the vast majority of them offering virtual lessons instead. That’s far more than most other weeks this school year, but a small fraction of some 130,000 schools in the United States.

“There is a very strong push to keep schools open,” said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio. The firm’s data shows the closures concentrated in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast.

Some school districts in California have student vaccine mandate deadlines fast approaching, raising concerns over students being removed from campus. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post, Photo: Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Schools grapple with how to stay open amid omicron surge

Rising caseloads will test the resolve to remain open. Already, some teachers unions are pushing back against district plans, replaying the fights that dominated school politics last year.

As classes resumed in person Monday, the Chicago Teachers Union planned a vote on whether to defy the city’s order to teach in classrooms.

Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Chris Geovanis said the city was not taking steps necessary to keep schools safe for students and staff. An attempt to test students last week with take-home coronavirus tests failed when most of them were not processed in time and were spoiled.

“Their testing is a joke,” Geovanis said. “So is their whole [coronavirus mitigation] program.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the decision was justified based on the experience of the past two years. “We cannot forget that shifting fully to remote learning is not a panacea and comes with significant harm to students and their families,” she said.

The surge was testing Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has repeatedly said her union wants schools to remain in person.

“This is a very fraught moment of high anxiety,” she said. She maintained that in-person school was best but also said offering regular coronavirus testing was critical, and she criticized Chicago for failing to put an effective program into place.

Given national shortages of teachers, bus drivers, substitutes and more, even communities with strong coronavirus testing might not have adequate staff for in-person classes, Weingarten said.

“People test positive, they have to stay home,” she said.

In Philadelphia, school will resume in person on Tuesday despite a push by the teachers union there to shift to remote learning.

“There might be some schools that have to have remote learning because of staffing challenges — with people who have tested positive not coming to school — but the district will be open for in-person learning,” said spokeswoman Monica M. Lewis.

In Yonkers, N.Y., the school district asked all students and teachers to take coronavirus tests ahead of a return to school this week and, over three days of testing, found a 25 percent positivity rate. On Friday, Superintendent Edwin M. Quezada announced that school will be virtual this week.

“This decision was made because we will never compromise the health and well-being of our students and staff under any circumstances,” Quezada said in a letter to parents.

The surge in cases, the changing calendars and the scramble for coronavirus tests has heightened anxiety among students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Many school districts are amping up virus testing, an element of coronavirus mitigation that has long been recommended by public health authorities but is missing from most U.S. school systems. A significant number of districts pushed back their return from winter break to accommodate testing.

In Detroit, classes were canceled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to test all staff. In Baltimore City, winter break was extended to Wednesday to allow for testing of all students and staff; those who test positive will need to isolate for 10 days. And in Madison, Wis., classes were canceled through Thursday, and then the district will operate virtually for an indefinite period.

Even short-term closures and delays leave parents, already weary from a pandemic that has stretched nearly two years, scrambling.

“We’re seeing two-hour delays, we’re seeing cancellations for today and tomorrow in a lot of places,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a group that often clashes with teachers unions over policy, on Monday. She said that some notifications were sent just a day or two ago, giving parents who cannot easily adjust their work schedules little time to arrange child care.

She said a surge of cases in the winter, when people are socializing indoors, was utterly predicable, and yet schools were not ready when it happened. For instance, she asked why so many districts have had to scramble to find rapid tests given the available federal funding and months to prepare. “All of this is being thrown together at the last minute,” she said.

Still, she said she was “cautiously optimistic” that so far most districts are returning to in-person learning.

Districts were making other changes to their protocols, too.

In Los Angeles County, health officials ordered all staff who work in the dozens of school districts in the county to wear upgraded masks. That means cloth masks are no longer allowed. Officials recommended, but didn’t require, the same for students.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools announced a mask mandate for teachers, staff, visitors, contractors, vendors and volunteers; a mandate for students is banned by state law. Broward County, Fla., Public Schools resumed school with a new mask mandate for visitors but not employees or students.

In the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, Superintendent Abram M. Lucabaugh said in a message to the community Sunday that there would be no school on Monday because of weather but that staff shortages due to covid-19 were a factor as well.

He wrote that there was an “unprecedented need” for substitute teachers that exceeds the number available. “The anticipated staffing shortages associated with the omicron-related spike in COVID-19 cases have come to fruition.”

The district on Monday was assessing what to do for the rest of the week.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.