US school closure conundrum

U.S. Schools Close in Droves as Omicron Drives Staff Shortages

Student backpacks hang in a classroom during the first day of classes at a private school in North Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Florida’s State Board of Education said it would force defiant school districts to comply with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order forbidding them from mandating students wear masks as a way to slow a surge in Covid-19 cases. Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) --School closings are accelerating across the U.S. as omicron infections ensnare teachers and drive staffing shortages.

By Nic Querolo

Word Count: 767
The speed of this Covid-19 surge led large districts like AtlantaDetroit, and Prince George’s County in Maryland to adopt remote instruction just days into the new year, often leaving parents little time to readjust schedules.

Nationally, the number of in-person closings has tripled since Dec. 19 as the percentage of positive tests surged. At least 3,229 schools were closed in the first week of January, the highest for the year but still below the peaks reached during last year’s winter surge, according to Burbio, which tracks closings.

“Districts are trying to open,” said Dennis Roche, Burbio’s co-founder. “The major variable is that in some parts of the U.S., where Covid rates are in the 20%+ range, you are going to have staffing shortages when testing is done.”

The surge has put state and city officials reluctant to repeat last year in a bind. “Kids need to be in school,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said Tuesday. The state has some outbreaks in schools, but transmission levels are higher in the community, he said.

“We don’t think closing schools and sending kids home for virtual learning is the way to go,” Hogan said.

In New Jersey, 30% of schools had switched to virtual learning as of Jan. 3, according to the state health department. Among 1.4 million K-12 students, infections have more than doubled in three weeks, to 11 per 1,000 pupils. Staff positives have quadrupled, to 24 per 1,000, according to state data.

Staying Open

Still, Governor Phil Murphy said the number of school outbreaks is lower than anticipated, which he called a sign that masking and other steps are working.

“We currently have no intention or plan to shut our schools,” Murphy said Monday during a virus briefing. “We have no desire to return to remote learning, which is suboptimal.” Individual districts, though, have the option to close.

In metro Atlanta, the city’s school district along with those in Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Rockdale counties all started the new year virtually due to infections among students and staff. Most districts plan to return to in-person classes next week.

Two other large suburban Atlanta districts planned to resume classes later this week. Cobb County schools will open Wednesday and Gwinnett County schools — the largest district in Georgia — will resume classes Thursday.

Public schools in Washington, D.C., are scheduled to reopen on Thursday. All students and staff must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result before returning. Tests administered before Tuesday won’t be accepted.

Baltimore students and staff also are returning to public schools this week, but the district extended winter break through Wednesday to allow for testing. Schools will resume weekly pooled testing at K-8 schools and individual PCR testing at all stand-alone middle schools and high schools when schools reopen on Thursday.

Students in Boston, meanwhile, returned to class Tuesday with more than 1,000 teachers and staff out with Covid, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said on WCVB-TV. The teachers’ union has called for stronger testing protocols.

On Tuesday, Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez said classes will be canceled on Wednesday if the teachers’ union votes to work remotely against the district’s wishes. The Chicago Teachers Union, which is asking for more mitigation measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, plans to vote on remote learning on Tuesday.

In New York City schools, the largest district in the country, a third of the system’s 1 million students didn’t show up on the first day back, with the city reporting a 67% attendance rate on Jan 3. Average daily attendance this year is about 88%.

City Department of Education officials are still tabulating staff absence totals. Unions had asked for remote instruction and added testing ahead of classes, while warning of staff shortages due to teachers testing positive for Covid.

Mayor Eric Adams has made efforts to convince families that schools are safe, and the city so far hasn’t shifted to virtual or mandated proof of negative tests. In a CNN interview on Tuesday, he said if recommendations from his health officials change, he might reconsider.

For now, “the safest place for our children is in a school building,” Adams said.

(Updates with Chicago developments)

–With assistance from Margaret Newkirk, Elise Young, Carey Goldberg, Shruti Date Singh and Shelly Banjo.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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