Michael T. Osterholm is Regents Professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Cory Anderson is a research associate and PhD candidate in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.
But our desire to keep kids in classrooms should always be tempered by a keen situational awareness of the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic. As the omicron variant rages across the country, we must prepare for the possibility that some schools may have to close. This isn’t a political statement; it’s a simple reality.
Omicron has rewritten the pandemic rule book regarding transmission and immunity. Unlike the series of rolling geographic surges that accompanied previous variants, omicron represents a viral blizzard of widespread infections spanning the entire country. For the next three to five weeks, the sheer number of cases will pose significant challenges to U.S. health-care systems, public safety operations, critical infrastructure capacities, food distribution and services, and educational programs. Each could temporarily lose 25 to 40 percent of their workforce because of isolation and quarantine.
Omicron, in addition to being substantially more infectious than previous variants, is more adept at eluding protections against symptomatic disease from previous infection or vaccines, particularly in the absence of a booster dose. With more than 40 states confronting pandemic-high case levels, and based on experiences in countries with earlier starts to their omicron surges, such as South Africa, Denmark, Norway and Britain, we can expect daily cases in the United States to nearly triple that of our previous peak in the coming weeks.
Fortunately, despite omicron’s ability to cause more breakthrough infections, it seems the vaccines still protect against severe disease and death. But hospitalizations are at all-time highs because of how rapidly it is spreading. And, although children remain at lower risk of hospitalization compared to older age groups, they are now being admitted at the highest levels documented to date since the start of the pandemic.
We simply can’t rely on our previous experiences to shape our approach with schools. Although it’s convenient to recite claims that schools are safe and must be reopened, that oversimplifies a complex situation caused by this virus.
Safety implies an absence of risk. While we can and must implement tools to make schools safer, we know that transmission can and will occur in these settings, particularly with omicron. For example, nearly half of ongoing outbreaks in Michigan are in K-12 schools. And data from Illinois indicates that 42 percent of cases participating in contact tracing listed schools as a potential exposure. With weekly infections in U.S. children higher than ever before, schools will continue to play a role.
Discussions focused on the benefits of in-person learning must consider this. And they must also acknowledge that existing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not remedy the situation — especially the erroneous notion that three feet of distancing can prevent the spread in educational settings.
Even if the push for in-person schooling is deemed worthy of such risks, increased infections among teachers, staff, bus drivers and many of the students themselves will likely disrupt these plans, as seen throughout Britain and a growing number of U.S. states.
While widespread testing has been cited as a way to help avoid these obstacles, current test-based strategies deployed in U.S. school districts have, at best, merely postponed the inevitable by a matter of days. Without the capacity to provide routine tests in educational settings, any results obtained today will be outdated by tomorrow.
We as a country need to accept the fact that the next three to five weeks will require an enormous amount of reassessment in many facets of society, including schools. Yes, in-person schooling is far better than remote options, but that can’t happen without adequate staffing, including teachers, bus drivers and food workers.
In the event that these essential personnel are available, schools can open. But let’s not pretend they are somehow off-limits to the virus. We must do all we can to make schools safer. Yet despite our best intentions, it is highly likely omicron will challenge our ability to keep students, teachers and staff in the classroom. The best we can do is accept this reality and accommodate what the virus is doing, since it won’t accommodate us.