The Omicron Wave threatens to upend any sense of peace in the American education system.
After a vacation break that has seen coronavirus cases steadily increase, a small but growing list of public school districts – including Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland – have temporarily switched to distance learning. On Monday evening, the Philadelphia School District announced that 81 schools, out of 216, would be distant.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children are enrolled in districts that have made the switch to distance learning.
And that number may increase. Tuesday, the members of the Chicago Teachers Union are preparing to vote on whether to refuse to attend schools from the next day.
District-wide closures, even those lasting a week or two, are a step backwards after months in which classrooms remained widely open.
And although politicians, including Mayor Eric Adams of New York and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, promised to keep schools open, parents and educators were increasingly concerned that more districts would soon turn to it. distance learning – although transmission to school The Covid has been limited.
These decisions could radiate across the country, affecting child care, jobs and any confidence the pandemic’s stranglehold loosens.
Some families were only given days or even hours of notice about school closings, leading to the all-too-familiar pandemic rush to adjust childcare arrangements and work schedules. Atlanta public schools, for example, announced Saturday that classes would be online during the first week of January, just days after announcing that classes would be held in person.
In Philadelphia, the school district underscored its commitment to in-person learning throughout the day on Monday, as the local teachers’ union called for a seven-day break upon reopening, citing hundreds of positive cases among its 13,000 members. But at 7:30 p.m., the district announced that 77 schools, or about a third of the schools run by the district, would switch to virtual learning at least until Friday “due to staffing issues related to Covid.”
As of 11:30 p.m., the district added four more schools to the list.
“We spent all day and all weekend reviewing data from teachers or staff, either waiting for test results or waiting to be tested,” said Monica M. Lewis, district spokesperson. . Tuesday, adding: “and it was pretty clear that the staff were either positive or exposed and had to be isolated and things of that nature, where we just didn’t have enough staff in some of these schools, to have students come in person today.
The academic, social and emotional toll of distance learning has been enormous and well documented. And after a controversial first year of the pandemic, when the open-class debate was one of the most controversial in American life, politicians, labor leaders and teachers are now saying overwhelmingly they want school buildings remain open.
On Tuesday, President Biden, citing the lack of evidence that Omicron affects children more severely, called for schools to remain open. Local officials should use federal funds from the stimulus package passed last year to improve ventilation systems in schools and support classrooms large enough for social distancing, he said.
“We have no reason to believe at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Mr. Biden said. “We know our children can be safe at school. “
A large majority of the country’s school districts – including most of the larger ones – appear to be functioning relatively normally, in large part because of the vaccines.
Still, the closures this week appeared to be concentrated in areas, such as the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where Democratic Party policymakers and teacher unions have taken a more cautious approach to running schools throughout. of the pandemic.
The country averages over 480,000 new cases per day, a record high, although hospitalizations are increasing much more slowly. Many principals have reported large numbers of staff calling sick because they have Covid-19 or other illnesses, or caring for sick family members or fearful of conditions in school buildings.
Several of the closed districts serve primarily black, Hispanic and low-income students, raising concerns about the educational gaps that have widened during previous phases of the pandemic.
And there are signs that some unions are becoming more reluctant to teach in person. Chicago Teachers Union, who has repeatedly clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, had demanded that every student be tested for the virus before returning from winter vacation, a step the district failed to take.
The district, one of the largest in the country, instead gave tens of thousands of students optional PCR tests to take away before winter break, which parents were supposed to bring in a FedEx drop box.
On Monday, it became clear that the testing effort had largely failed. Of 35,590 tests recorded by the district during the week ending Saturday, 24,843 had invalid results. Of those who produced results, 18 percent were positive.