Schools adjust to return of hiatus as COVID-19 cases increase

Mask requirements are coming back in some school districts that had abandoned them. Some are planning to dramatically step up virus testing among students and staff. And a small number of school systems are switching to distance learning – for a short time, educators hope.

With the surge in coronavirus infections, the return of school winter vacation will be different than expected for some as administrators again change protocols and make real-time adjustments in response to changing conditions. the pandemic. All point to the need to remain flexible.

“Change has been the only constant in this fight,” Newark school principal Roger León wrote in a notice to parents before the break. He announced Thursday that students will learn remotely for at least the first two weeks of the New Year. The virus, León said, continues “to be a brutal, relentless and ruthless virus that rears its ugly head at inappropriate times.”

Long after the widespread closures at the start of the pandemic, schools and elected leaders say they are using the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the final wave without long-term closures, which have had effects. dismal about learning and students’ well-being.

Yet pressure from parents and teachers’ unions has added urgency to safety measures as omicron-fueled push sends workloads and places children in hospital in near record numbers. .

“They say the kids are fine (if they get infected), but who can say my kid won’t be that one,” said Rebecca Caldwell, who plans to ask her district of Charleston, Illinois, for an option at a distance that would allow her to keep her four sons, aged 17, 10, 7 and 5, at home during the winter.

The first half of the school year brought Caldwell’s family three fears of exposure. One, from a family member, kept the whole family in quarantine for 10 days. His 17 and 10-year-old classmates were infected and each endured a grueling series of COVID-19 tests as part of a more recent “test to stay” policy.

“It’s really scary because you worry about the domino effect as well,” said Caldwell, whose own health issues caused her to quit her restaurant job over a year ago to reduce her costs. risks.

In the nation’s largest school system, New York City, 2 million state-provided home testing kits will be used to ramp up testing after the break, officials said this week. Students whose classmates test positive may continue to come to school as long as their home tests are negative and they have no symptoms.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers’ Federation, which represents educators in New York City, questioned whether the new testing initiatives would be available in every school by the time schools reopen on Monday.

“We are getting closer to a safe reopening of the school next week. But we are not there yet, ”he said.

In Chicago, the country’s third-largest school district, officials announced the purchase of 100,000 laptops over the holidays in case they are needed for distance learning in January, although district officials said hope to avoid a system-wide shutdown. The Chicago Teachers Union has proposed to suspend in-person learning unless new security measures are introduced, including negative COVID tests for returning students.

Los Angeles health officials last week announced stricter testing and masking rules for all employees and students when LA County public and private schools return to campuses on Monday. Concerned about a peak in the Omicron variant, the county health department has demanded that teachers wear medical-grade masks in class and that students and staff wear masks outside in crowded spaces. Schools will have two weeks to comply.

To help keep as many students as possible in school, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona have approved the test to stay in December as an alternative to previously recommended 10-day quarantines. Hundreds of schools have adopted stay-testing policies for students who have come in contact with an infected classmate.

“The goal remains to keep all schools open for in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2021-2022 school year and beyond,” Cardona said in a message to schools marking the mid-point. of the school year.

He said 99% of schools were open in person in December, up from 46% last January.

Of more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, relatively few have announced plans to start remotely after winter break.

Like Newark, these districts generally plan to resume in-person teaching in a few weeks. They include Cleveland, Ohio; Prince George County, Maryland; Mount Vernon, New York; Taos, New Mexico; Chester County, South Carolina; and several New Jersey school systems.

Citing the city’s high infection rate, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on Friday extended the winter vacation of nearly 50,000 students until at least Jan. 5 and urged them to get tested in the district. Tests are mandatory for employees.

Ronald Taylor, superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood school district in New Jersey, said a spike in cases and subsequent quarantine before the break disrupted operations by forcing consolidation of classes where there were not enough staff. He said the district would be removed the first week back.

“Like many other school districts we have seen a consistent trend, after each of our school vacations, both Thanksgiving and our fall break in early November, there has been a sharp increase in our student / staff population. COVID cases, ”he said. .

Masks will also make a comeback in some districts after the hiatus, including Hopkinton High School, the first public school in Massachusetts to lift the mandate, in October. He was reinstated just before the break.

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, where one in four people tested positive for the virus, the school system announced Thursday that all employees, volunteers and visitors will be required to wear face coverings in schools and facilities, and students will be strongly encouraged to door them. State law prevents school districts from imposing mask warrants on students.

Some school systems are preparing to require vaccinations for students, but not anytime soon.

In the Los Angeles School District, which was among the first to announce mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for students, a January 10 deadline for students 12 and older has been extended to fall 2022 Officials said the earlier date would have banned about 27,000 unvaccinated people. campus students.

On December 22, the District of Columbia said all students, whether in public, private, or charter schools, must be fully immunized by March 1.

Much of the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness.

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