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U.S. schools struggle with omicron Covid surge as officials push for in-person learning after winter break

Students make their way to class for the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

High school science teacher Ronnie Almonte and more than a dozen other New York City public school educators protested outside their school Tuesday morning, demanding more Covid testing, improved air filtration and other safety precautions as the nation faces a fresh threat from omicron.

Covid cases in Almonte’s school, Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, reached their highest levels of the semester over the past week and a half, he said.

In his biology class, Almonte estimates half his junior year students are staying home the last few days before winter break, which kicks off this week for many U.S. schools. His students tell him they are not coming in because they or a household member have tested positive for Covid, or out of caution as cases rise at school.

“We have this feeling of deja vu,” Almonte said. “I don’t know to what extent people really realize the trauma that us educators have from March of 2020.”

Across the U.S., school administrators, teachers, staff, students and their families are facing a resurgence of Covid cases as the omicron variant spreads rapidly. Unlike during previous waves, U.S. officials are pushing for schools to remain open — emboldened by the hope that vaccines will hold up against omicron at keeping people out of the hospital. All children over the age of 5 are eligible for the shot in the U.S.

From the White House to city halls, public officials are promoting Covid tests, vaccines, masks and social distancing to keep students in classrooms.

“Covid-19 is scary, but the science is clear. Children are as safe in schools as they are in any other place, assuming proper precautions have been taken,” President Joe Biden said during a news conference Tuesday.

While educators and parents who spoke with CNBC said they preferred in-person learning, they also worry whether the current public health guidelines will be enough to protect students and staff against the highly transmissible omicron strain.

Test to stay

The Centers for Disease Control is promoting a new strategy it calls “test to stay” that allows students who have been exposed to Covid through a close contact at school to avoid quarantining at home if they test negative. Studies in Los Angeles County, Calif., and Lake County, Ill., show the test-to-stay model resulted in low transmission rates, according to the CDC.

“Test to stay is an encouraging public health practice to help keep our children in school,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a news conference Friday.

Research shows remote learning and Covid-related disruptions negatively impacted children’s academic progress and development last year. Test scores revealed students fell behind, particularly low-income, Black and Hispanic students. Students who learned virtually also fared worse in social and emotional well-being, one study found.

“We must keep schools open for in-person instruction to ensure excellent educational opportunities and strong outcomes for all students, especially those who have been historically underserved and most impacted by the suspension of in-person learning,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said in a statement Monday.

In New York City where the omicron has taken hold, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to avoid any district-wide shutdowns unlike March of 2020 when the largest public school district in the U.S. was shuttered to contain the outbreak. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and California Gov. Gavin Newsom also said keeping schools open was a priority.

Still, individual schools and classrooms may close or move to online learning. More than 800 schools across the U.S. unexpectedly closed this week as of Wednesday, according to Burbio, a website that tracks school closures. The tally marks a sharp surge from the prior weeks, but is still lower than levels seen in November.

More than 500 schools have also announced closures in the first week of January, Burbio found. DC Public Schools plans to extend winter break by two days and offer free rapid antigen tests for families on those days.

Tallmadge City Schools in northeast Ohio shut down earlier this week. The district canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday before the winter recess, citing “the rapid spread of Covid.”

“Closing school is a big deal for us and something we don’t want to do,” Superintendent Steve Wood said. “When we saw the surge and the number of cases, we felt the risk outweighed the benefits of keeping the buildings open.”


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