Can hopes of keeping schools open stand up to Omicron?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus driving a major increase in COVID-19 cases, schools across the country are once again scrambling to create policies that balance safety against the widespread desire for in-person instruction.

Unlike during earlier stages of the pandemic, which saw extended periods of remote learning in many places, the vast majority of the nation’s 130,000 elementary and secondary schools have brought students back to campus after the holiday break. Still, the number of schools across the country that have shifted away from in-person instruction has increased dramatically in response to the Omicron surge, from 336 in early December to more than 5,000 at the beginning of January, according to the school tracking service Burbio.

Classes were canceled for the third consecutive day on Friday in Chicago — the nation’s third-largest school district, with more than 340,000 students — amid an ongoing disagreement between city leaders and the teachers' union over COVID safety protocols. In-person instruction was also disrupted for schools in Cleveland, Philadelphia and a number of other districts in response to rising case numbers and related staff shortages.

Keeping schools open is a major policy goal for the Biden administration. “I believe schools should remain open. They have what they need," President Biden said Tuesday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for schools states that in-person instruction “continues to be a priority.” But the federal government doesn’t have the power to require schools to stay open. Those decisions are made at the local level.

Why there’s debate

The fight over school closures has been waged since the earliest days of the pandemic, but the emergence of the Omicron variant — which is more contagious, though potentially less virulent than previous strains — has changed the parameter of the debate in many ways.

Many health experts argue that there’s no reason for schools to close, given the relatively lower health risks and well-documented harms that extended periods of distance learning caused for millions of American children. “It’s safe enough to get those kids back to school, balanced against the deleterious effects of keeping them out,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday, while also citing the high rates of vaccination among teachers.

There’s disagreement, though, over what is the best strategy for keeping schools open. The more cautious emphasize the importance of mitigation protocols like testing, masking, quarantine and contact tracing. Others say the threat of Omicron is so low that schools should abandon most or all of those tactics and move past pandemic protocols.

Critics of this view say it grossly underestimates the dangers of the virus right now, with more than 2,000 reported deaths a day as of late this week and hospitals once again overwhelmed by a flood of new COVID patients. They also point to the practical reality that schools can’t function if too many staff members get sick, even if their infections aren’t life-threatening. A short, controlled shift to distance learning, they argue, may be better than an extended period of haphazard shutdowns and poorly attended instruction days.

What’s next

Decisions on school closures and openings are, for the most part, being made on a day-to-day basis. Students in Chicago, for example, could head back to class as soon as next week if a deal is reached between the city and the union. At the same time, even more schools could be forced to reluctantly close if on-campus outbreaks make it impossible to sustain in-person instruction due to infections or staffing shortages.


The harms of school closures outweigh the risks from the virus

“​​It is crucial for schools to remain open for in-person instruction. We have seen the many negative consequences of removing children from the classroom, and plenty of studies have documented that schools can be very safe from a Covid-19 standpoint, when protective measures are in place.” — Dr. Leanna Wen, public health expert, to CNN

It’s unreasonable to ask teachers to sacrifice their health to make everyone else’s lives easier

“[Learning loss is] a valid worry. But it’s hard to escape the corollary. If some teachers get sick as a result of an in-person teaching mandate, so be it. Meanwhile, a privileged swathe of white-collar America has been working from home since March 2020, and every COVID-19 surge and variant pushes back our office return date.” — Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe

Teachers are no different than any other essential workers

“Teachers are not at any more risk than grocery-store workers, restaurant workers, or any of the other ‘essential workers’ who have been working in person throughout the entire pandemic. If fast-food employees can show up to work, so can teachers. In fact, they have a higher obligation to do so because schools are more important than Taco Bell.” — Editorial, National Review

Schools can stay open if they stop overreacting to individual COVID cases

“When it comes to quarantining and masking, many schools should take a less intrusive approach than they currently are. This may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a surge, but because learning has been disrupted so much already, we need to prioritize keeping kids in school as much as possible and making the educational experience when they are there as rich as possible.” — Joseph G. Allen, associate professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, New York Times

The virus, not overcautious teachers’ unions, is what’s forcing schools to close

“We can argue until the cows come home whether or not it is ‘safe’ to be in schools now and different people will make different calculations, but for the moment this is a moot point because schools overwhelmed by Omicron simply can't function in person.” — Education researcher John Warner

It’s time to accept that the COVID emergency is over

“To bring more precision to the school debate, one question is ‘when should we stop treating the SARS-Cov-2 virus differently from any other respiratory virus from the standpoint of quarantine rules?’ My answer would be — now.” — Journalist Matthew Yglesias

In-person instruction is a mess right now, too

“Despite the controversy, the vast majority of schools remain open. And even without the frustrations of remote learning, teachers say that students’ absences and staff shortages have thrown a wrench in their plans for the beginning of this semester, making it impossible to continue with their curriculum.” — Sarah Schwartz, Education Week

Schools aren’t getting nearly enough support needed to keep their doors open

“Health officials across the nation warned that the spread was bound to accelerate as people gathered over the holidays. So it should have been obvious that precautions would be necessary to avoid back-to-school super-spreader events in January and a return to the disaster of remote learning.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

We shouldn’t reorder our society to protect people who choose not to protect themselves

“It is no longer the spring of 2020. At this point, developing a severe case of the virus is essentially a choice because Covid vaccines are widely available and very effective.” — Michael R. Strain, Bloomberg

The biggest problem is the lack of a clear plan for how to respond to the Omicron surge

“School leaders need to present a better plan to prepare students and school staff for the possibility that many schools may have to take a temporary ‘pause’ either due to the (likely) case clusters in school or due to the (inevitable) staffing challenges if teachers and other school staff need to isolate because of COVID-19.” — Rhea Powell, Philadelphia Inquirer

Society as a whole, not just teachers, has to sacrifice to keep schools open

“Disruption is something no one wants. In an era where there's little common ground, there's broad agreement about the importance of keeping kids in school. Individual action is key to making that happen. The time to step up is now.” — Editorial, Star Tribune

People on both sides of the debate should stop acting like there are simple answers

“The only thing we can count on as schools scramble to reopen safely is more anxiety. Questions about what reopening safely means and how schools will try to keep Covid at bay so that kids can keep learning remain impossibly fraught nearly two years into the pandemic. There may be no satisfying answers, no easy solutions and no decisions without consequences.” — Liz Willen, Hechinger Report

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Decisions should be made locally.

“For K-12 schools, choices will be difficult. Community transmission has been a yardstick in the past. But during omicron it is soaring in some places, while not leading to severe disease among adults as often as in the past. Administrators face other factors, too, such as whether they have sufficient teachers and support staff. There is no single solution for all districts.” — Editorial, Washington Post

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Photo Credit: AP Photo/Brittainy Newman