Omicron Is Coming. How Can Schools Prepare?

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

Most of them were fully opened in person at the start of the school year and have remained that way, with some quarantine measures, closures and other interruptions.

That’s not to downplay the ongoing staff shortage, the occasional COVID-19 outbreak, and heightened mental health concerns. But overall, schools in most parts of the United States have been able to provide consistent personalized education for several months now.

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

Enter Omicron

With high cases of the Delta variant continuing, along with the onset of flu season and a tendency for people to move activities indoors as temperatures drop, the next few months were already going to be challenging for schools, says Dr. Sarah Budd, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics School Health Board and medical advisor. For schools in Columbus, Ohio. Adding the Omicron variable only complicates the problem.

“Schools are going to have a harder time this winter than they did in the fall, with all that going around,” Bode says. “It could mean that some school districts need to do some distance learning in the meantime.”

A November survey by education company Clever, which shared the prospective findings with EdSurge, found a general desire by teachers and school administrators to return to distance learning if public health deteriorates again in the future. Of the 1,500 participants, 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 there is a need to respond to new developments in the pandemic.

There is no indication that schools are in this position yet, or even that they will be in the future. Early results suggest that the variant spreads more quickly than delta but may cause less serious disease – although scientists still confirm these data.

However, as with previous variants, cases may rise significantly once the United States experiences community spread of Omicron. Budd expects an “extra wave or impulse”.

This is what many school leaders are preparing for. If staff are ill abroad and large numbers of students test positive, how will they continue to provide personal guidance?

“It makes sense to be careful about that – we don’t know enough yet [Omicron’s] Or the rate of infection or the strength of vaccination against it. “What we do know is that there is another variant, and it is in the United States.”

Julie McMorris, communications coordinator for Englewood Schools, a small public school district near Denver, says she and her colleagues hope that their mitigation efforts this year will continue to be effective, even against Omicron, which has already been confirmed in her district.

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

Since the beginning of this school year, Englewood has demanded universal concealment for all ages and all vaccinations. It also conducts weekly tests with students participating in “high-risk” activities, such as sports and other clubs, with which students choose to be tested, and with any employees who have not been vaccinated. (McMorris estimates that 80 to 90 percent of employees have been 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 more reliable and of higher quality than previous pandemic classes, McMorris says.

“The school year went very smoothly,” she says, noting that Colorado only requires students or classrooms to quarantine when there is an “outbreak” — generally defined as five or more connected cases. Since August, there has been only one outbreak across the nine Englewood sites. It was a first grade semester, and the students were sent home for two weeks.

Like Englewood, Bodhi says, “A lot of schools have been able to personally start successfully this year and maintain that, after all measures were in place. … They made their strides, passed the curriculum and kept the children safe.”

The best defense is still a good attack

Although it remains unclear what Omicron will look like once it becomes more widespread in the United States, she is sure that our tried and true defenses — concealment, social distancing, routine testing and vaccination — will remain essential.

“Vaccination is key here,” Bode stresses. “It’s the number one determinant of how we get through winter with the greatest chance of maintaining personal learning all the time.”

For now, vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11 is essential to keep schools open. This 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 children in that age group, received their first dose.

“There has to be a major effort in every society to increase this number — of children aged 5-11,” Bode says. She noted that school vaccination clinics can be beneficial, in addition to efforts to educate students and families about the importance, efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

Englewood Schools set up five vaccination clinics on school sites in November and plans to hold at least five more this month. In clinics, anyone 5 years of age and older is entitled to their first or second dose or a booster dose. The district is also partnering with the local Department of Public Health to educate the community about vaccines, including by holding some question-and-answer sessions for high school students on the school property during school hours, and by setting up a vaccine clinic at one of the school’s football games.

Other places are looking for states to increase vaccination rates. California recently became the first state to require vaccinations for both students and staff, likely by July 2022. Los Angeles requires all students to be vaccinated by January—although there are significant crossings. New York City will be setting up its own mandate for students participating in some extracurricular activities as soon as possible This month.

Among the reasons why vaccinating children is essential, Bode says, is that it would go a long way toward keeping schools open for personalized learning.

“We know that children have caused the epidemic by things other than COVID: academic loss, isolation,” she says. “Vaccination is one way to return to a normal and routine life, which is essential for social, emotional, and academic success.”

McMorris stressed this point, noting that she has seen firsthand the effects of the pandemic on Englewood students.

“Like many other school districts, we have seen many social, emotional, and mental health issues in our students this year, possibly because of all the disruption that has occurred and the weight of the pandemic on students and their families,” she says. “The ability to include them in school on a daily basis and provide social, emotional and educational support is vital to 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 day,” she says.

McMorris adds: “We’ve had a lot of success in making sure we’re reducing our outbreaks and keeping everyone healthy. I think that’s put us in a good position to tackle this new alternative. Hopefully what we already have will help us continue to stop the spread.”

For other counties, Dr. Bode recommends relying on health and safety protocols that have been shown to work.

“If we put mitigation measures in place with masks, social distancing and vaccination, children can be in school and the situation can be safe,” she says. We have to keep doing it and follow it. And with each new change, we have to keep watching. So with Omicron, we have to follow the data.”

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