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School systems around the world debate new closures as omicron spreads

U.N. agencies have called for classrooms to remain open, arguing that another round of widespread disruptions would be ‘disastrous’ for children

A student takes a coronavirus test at a school in Halifax, northwest England, on Jan. 4. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
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As countries contend with the fast-moving omicron variant, governments and school systems that had hoped for a lasting return to in-person learning after protracted coronavirus-era disruptions are grappling with whether, or for how long, to close schools again.

Several major school systems in the United States have gone online, even as the Biden administration pushes for schools to remain open. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, switched to remote learning for the first half of January. Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium last month extended winter holiday breaks.

In November, thousands of children returned to classrooms in the Philippines after 20 months of learning remotely.

Now, as coronavirus infections spike and the country records more cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant, children are being sent home again.

Limited face-to-face classes in the country’s capital, Manila, were suspended from Monday until at least Jan. 15, with the government characterizing in-person teaching as having a high risk for transmission.

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In India and Mexico — which, like the Philippines, saw some of the world’s longest school closures — students in areas where omicron is surging also find themselves back at home.

“We have an already stretched education system, a global learning crisis,” said Robert Jenkins, global director of education for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, which tracks school closures. “With the impact of omicron and it affecting teachers, we see that that’s constraining the possibility of keeping schools open.”

About 300 million students worldwide live in countries with full or partial school closures, according to UNESCO. While that number is down significantly since the start of the pandemic — and many governments are trying to keep children in schools — the number of students affected by closures has risen from a low point in October and November, according to Sobhi Tawil, director of future learning and innovation at UNESCO.

UNESCO and UNICEF have called for schools to remain open, arguing that another round of widespread closures would be “disastrous” for children.

Studies in countries including Canada, Japan and the United States have shown that school closures have limited impact on the spread of the virus.

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)

“There’s still things that we don’t know about omicron in schools,” said Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist and global health expert at the University of Washington.

But, he added: “For the duration of the pandemic, it’s now quite clear that schools have not been a major driver of transmission.”

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Children are at greater risk of becoming infected through community transmission outside of schools, Guthrie said, especially when schools require mask-wearing.

Meanwhile, a report released by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank last month warned that the current generation of students risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings because of coronavirus-related school closures. Millions of students are at risk of never resuming their education, the report found. Poorer and otherwise marginalized students, whether in wealthier or poorer countries, have seen the greatest learning setbacks.

Even wealthy European countries where students attended school in person through most of the pandemic saw drops in test scores and attendance.

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Beyond students falling behind, UNICEF has raised the alarm about a “shadow pandemic” of child marriage, child labor and mental health issues resulting from children being kept home. Many poorer students also rely on schools for meals and other services.

Uganda is moving ahead with reopening schools next week after more than 80 weeks of shuttered classroom doors. But about 30 percent of students are expected to not return because of teen pregnancy, early marriage or child labor, according to Uganda’s National Planning Authority.

Rather than switching to online learning, some countries have scaled up safety measures in classrooms. Students in England, for example, were given coronavirus tests at school before heading back to class this week.

Israel last week amended guidelines for elementary schools in places with high infection rates to reduce the number of students required to study remotely, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

But efforts around the world to keep schools operating are running up against the highly infectious nature of the omicron variant, as administrators scramble to deal with staffing shortages.

Jenkins called the strain on staffing in schools “a new dynamic.” At the moment, it largely affects high-income countries that have seen infections skyrocket, but it could soon come to “strain already very limited-capacity education systems in poorer countries,” he said.

Britain, anticipating large staff shortages this month, called for former teachers to return to the classroom.

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Teachers in many places, however, are demanding that governments provide better workplace protections — opening a new front in ongoing battles between teachers unions and authorities.

Chicago public schools canceled classes for a third day in a row Friday amid a dispute between the city and the teachers union, which is lobbying for a two-week switch to virtual classes.

In the face of widespread virus-related student and staff absences, the largest union of secondary school teachers in France has indicated its intent to strike if the government does not provide higher-grade masks to teachers and make changes to the testing strategy for schools. In the Philippines, a major association of education workers called on the government to allocate more money to open schools safely.

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Parents and medical experts in some places remain divided over the risks and benefits of keeping schools open.

Pediatric hospitalizations in some countries have hit record highs in recent weeks. Still, children are still less likely to become seriously ill than adults. And while omicron is more infectious and better able to dodge prior immunity than previous variants, it appears to be milder. Medical and public health authorities have emphasized that vaccinations still offer robust protection from severe disease.

Many European countries are banking on pediatric vaccinations. Belgium and France are among those that recently extended eligibility for vaccination to children ages 5 to 11.

In countries where vaccines are scarcer or have not yet been approved for children, the priority should be on vaccinating teachers, Jenkins said. UNICEF also pointed to other creative strategies: Thailand and India, among others, have held classes outdoors.

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As the pandemic drags into a third year and large portions of the global population remain unvaccinated — creating the potential for more variants to emerge — school systems must develop long-term strategies, said Stefania Giannini, assistant director general for education at UNESCO.

“What governments are actually beginning to realize now is that what we thought we defined as an exceptional situation is becoming a new normal,” Giannini said.

The World Health Organization’s Europe branch is continuing to urge schools to remain open while improving classroom ventilation and ramping up testing and mask-wearing. It plans to convene an advisory group this month to put forward specific recommendations related to managing omicron.

Meanwhile, global education experts insist that closing schools must remain a last resort.

“Where we get particularly concerned is where large swaths of society are open — restaurants and bars and entertainment, etc. — and schools remain closed,” Jenkins said.

Read more:

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