K-12 classroom sits empty due to COVID closures

Friday Roundup: This Week’s COVID and Education Headlines

The Omicron variant of COVID continues to dominate headlines across the U.S. and around the world. With our understanding of this variant changing almost daily, schools in particular have experienced turmoil trying to navigate the best practices for ensuring student and staff safety. In this new blog series from R-Zero, we’re sharing the top stories of the week and what they indicate for the education sector.

The U.S. reported a record-breaking 1 million new COVID infections on Monday.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, this tally brings the total number of cases since the pandemic began to 56,189,547 (as of Tuesday, January 4, 2022). About 98,000 Americans are hospitalized, and in recent weeks, the U.S. has seen Omicron beginning to edge out the Delta strain of the virus. (U.S. reports over 1 million new daily Covid cases as Omicron surges, CNBC News)

In the wake of Omicron, infectious disease specialists have suggested reconsidering the efficacy of cloth masks.

Single-layer cloth masks block larger droplets carrying the virus but aren’t as effective in blocking smaller aerosols or particles carrying it. On Thursday, the Mayo Clinic began requiring all patients and visitors to wear surgical, N95, or KN95 masks–anyone wearing a single-layer cloth mask will now be provided a medical-grade mask to wear over it. The layer of polypropylene in a KN95 is what makes it more effective at trapping small particles than a cloth or surgical mask. (Why Cloth Masks Might Not Be Enough as Omicron Spreads, The Wall Street Journal)

The closure of more than 4500 U.S. schools for at least one day this week underscores the lack of available resources for teachers and staff.

With at least 4500 U.S. schools closed for at least one day in this first week of 2022, challenges relating to staff shortages and lack of support have become more apparent. Public schools were “struggling to stay open even before the latest surge hit,” and schools are facing a pandemic labor shortage based on decades of under-resourcing now heightened by COVID-19. Closings are largely due to rising transmission rates and shortages across the education sector. Limited availability of substitute teachers, over-stretched school counselors responsible for 500+ students each, and depression and anxiety brought on by the pandemic have pushed teachers, staff, and districts to the breaking point. The mental health of school staff around the country has been devastated and is in desperate need of relief. (America doesn’t have enough teachers to keep schools open, Vox)

Current COVID-related school closures are concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

With limited COVID tests available for their use, school leaders are scrambling to respond to a situation that’s changing daily. For example, the Milwaukee school district (75,000 students in total) announced Sunday night it would switch to remote instruction temporarily, with schools in Chicago, Wisconsin, Detroit, Ohio, St. Louis, and Newark making similar decisions to close temporarily as Omicron and uncertainty spread. In these regions, policymakers and teachers’ unions have adopted a more cautious approach to operating schools throughout the pandemic.(Omicron upends return to school in U.S., The New York Times)

In Chicago, public schools reopened their doors Monday amidst a steep COVID surge, but a vote the next day closed them once again.

73% voted in favor of remote work only. “A vote to stop reporting to work would cause profound harm to children’s learning and another damaging blow to the well-being of our students and their families,” CPS said. President of the CTU, Jesse Sharkey, said, “Teachers are being put in the unfortunate situation where we are trying to keep people safe and aren’t being given the tools to do so.” Schools remained closed as of Friday, January 7th. (Chicago schools cancel classes after teachers vote to switch to remote learning, CBS News)

COVID transmission among school-age children is taking a toll on their parents.

“Parents find themselves abruptly thrown back into a pandemic stage they thought they’d escaped: worrying about school cancellations, managing remote learning and calculating quarantine periods. Especially in places where case levels are acute, parents wonder how they will provide care and instruction for their children if they are sent home,” notes a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor and parenting book author, explains that Omicron disruptions burden parents in two ways: with the practical issue of caring for children in remote schooling situations and with the emotional toll of fear and uncertainty a new variant brings. (Omicron school disruptions stress already-frayed parents–again, The Wall Street Journal)

Responding to closures, the U.S. Secretary of Education says he believes “firmly and passionately that our students belong in the classroom and we can do it safely.”

Secretary Cardona remains pointed about the importance of in-person learning, reemphasizing his perspective that “even with Omicron, our default should be in-person learning for all students across the country.” Staying vigilant, focusing on mitigation strategies that work, and making sure testing is set up in every district across the country are current goals of the administration. “We went from 47% of our schools open last January to 99% in December, so we know what works.” (Secretary of Education on Face the Nation, CBS News)

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