Omicron Is Coming. How Can Schools Prepare?

Coronavirus

Omicron Is Coming. How Can Schools Prepare?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Dec 8, 2021

Schools this fall have, for the most part, found their rhythm—at least by pandemic standards.

Most opened fully in-person at the start of the academic year and have stayed that way, with some quarantines, closures and other interruptions sprinkled in.

That’s not to downplay the ongoing hardship of staff shortages, occasional COVID-19 outbreaks, and increased mental health concerns. But generally speaking, schools across much of the U.S. have been able to provide consistent in-personal learning for several months now.

So it’s no wonder that many educators and school leaders are now questioning how a new COVID-19 variant might affect that progress. In the face of a new surge of infections, will schools be able to keep their doors open?

Enter Omicron

With the continually high cases of the Delta variant, coupled with the onset of flu season and the propensity for people to move activities indoors as temperatures drop, the next few months were already going to present a challenge for schools, says Dr. Sara Bode, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health and the medical advisor for Columbus City Schools in Ohio. The addition of the Omicron variant only complicates the issue.

“Schools are going to have a harder time this winter season than they did in the fall, with navigating all of that,” says Bode. “It may mean some school districts need to do some remote learning in the interim.”

A survey conducted in November by the education company Clever, which shared forthcoming results with EdSurge, found a general willingness by educators and school administrators to return to remote learning if the public health situation deteriorates again in the future. Out of 1,500 respondents, the vast majority of whom work in public school settings, 88 percent of administrators and 81 percent of teachers agreed that districts should use virtual learning if it’s needed to respond to new developments in the pandemic.

There’s no indication that schools are in this position yet, or even that they will be in the future. Early findings suggest the variant spreads more rapidly than Delta but may cause less severe illness—though scientists are still confirming that data.

Still, like with previous variants, cases may spike considerably once the United States experiences community spread of Omicron. Bode predicts an “additional wave or surge.”

This is what many school leaders are bracing for. If staff are out sick and droves of students are testing positive, how will they continue to offer in-person instruction?

“It’s reasonable to be cautious about that—we don’t know enough yet about [Omicron’s] transmissibility, infection rate or the vaccination’s power against it,” she says. “What we do know is there is another variant, and it is in the United States.”

Julie McMorris, the communications coordinator at Englewood Schools, a small public school district located near Denver, says that she and her colleagues are hopeful that the mitigation efforts they’ve put in place this year will continue to be effective, even against Omicron, which has already been confirmed in her county.

“We’re all just kind of waiting for more information, since we don’t know a lot yet,” McMorris says. “But we’re cautiously optimistic, because we know we have a lot of good protocols in place already.”

Since the beginning of this school year, Englewood has required universal masking for all ages and all vaccination statuses. It also conducts weekly testing with students participating in “high-risk” activities, such as sports and other clubs, with any students who opt in to testing, and with any employees who are unvaccinated. (McMorris estimates 80 to 90 percent of staff are fully vaccinated.)

Despite the challenges presented by the Delta variant over the summer and into the fall, Englewood has been able to offer students a school experience this semester that is far more reliable and high-quality than the previous pandemic semesters, McMorris says.

“The school year has actually gone pretty smoothly,” she says, noting that the state of Colorado only requires students or classrooms to quarantine when an “outbreak” has occurred—generally defined as five or more connected cases. Since August, there has only been one outbreak across Englewood’s nine sites. It was a first-grade classroom, and the students were sent home for two weeks.

Like Englewood, Bode says, “A lot of schools were able to successfully start in person this year and maintain that, after putting all the measures into place. … They’ve been hitting their stride and successfully getting through the curriculum and keeping kids safe.”

The Best Defense Is Still a Good Offense

Though it’s still unclear what Omicron will look like once it becomes more widespread in the U.S., she’s certain that our tried-and-true defenses—masking, social distancing, routine testing and vaccination—will continue to be essential.

“Vaccination is the key here,” Bode emphasizes. “It’s the No. 1 determining factor of how we’re going to get through the winter season with the highest chance of maintaining in-person learning the entire time.”

Right now, she views the vaccination of children ages 5 to 11 as critical to keeping schools open. That age group became eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine just over a month ago, and in the first two weeks of eligibility, 2.6 million children nationwide, or about 10 percent of kids in that age group, received their first dose.

“There has to be a significant effort in every community to get that number—of children ages 5-11 vaccinated—up,” Bode says. She noted that school-based vaccine clinics can be helpful, as well as efforts to educate students and families about the importance, efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

Englewood Schools held five vaccine clinics at school sites in November and plans to hold at least another five this month. At the clinics, anyone aged 5 and up is eligible to get their first or second dose or a booster shot. The district is also partnering with the local public health department to educate the community about the vaccines, including by holding a few Q&A sessions for high school students on school property during school hours, and by setting up a vaccine clinic at one of the school’s football games.

Other places are looking to mandates to boost vaccination rates. California recently became the first state to require vaccinations for both students and staff, likely by July 2022. Los Angeles is asking all students to be vaccinated by January—though with significant holdouts. And New York City will put in place its own mandate for students participating in certain extracurricular activities as soon as this month.

Among the reasons that vaccinating children is essential, Bode says, is it will go a long way toward keeping schools open for in-person learning.

“We know kids have had a toll in the pandemic from things beyond COVID: academic loss, isolation,” she says. “Vaccination is one way to get back to normal, routine life, which is essential for social-emotional success and academic success.”

McMorris emphasized that point, noting that she’s seen first-hand the impacts of the pandemic on the Englewood student population.

“Like many other school districts, we’ve seen many more social, emotional and mental health issues in our students this year, probably because of all the disruption that’s been happening and the weight of the pandemic on students and their families,” she says. “Being able to have them in school every day and provide social and emotional support and educational support is vital for our students and families.”

McMorris says she feels lucky, because while her district has approached COVID with caution, it has also prioritized student learning and well-being.

“We want our students to have consistent, face-to-face learning opportunities every single day,” she says.

McMorris adds: “We’ve seen a lot of success in making sure we’re limiting our outbreaks and keeping everyone healthy. I think that has put us in a good position to handle this new variant. We’re hopeful what we have in place already will help us continue to stop the spread.”

For other districts, Dr. Bode recommends leaning on the health and safety protocols that are proven to work.

“If we put mitigation measures into place with masking and distancing and vaccination, kids can be in school and it can be safe,” she says. “We have to continue to do that and follow it. And with every new change, we have to continue to monitor it. So with Omicron, we have to follow the data.”

 

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