Students in a K-12 classroom

Understanding Omicron and Its Implications for Schools

Over the past several weeks, the Omicron variant has taken center stage in headlines across the globe. The CDC and the WHO continue to grapple with the original strain of COVID, the previously dominant Delta variant, and the uncertainty of what Omicron may bring. The pandemic is once again upending daily life, dealing another psychological blow to an exhausted nation of parents, children, and educators as news of the virus variants provokes new policy challenges. School disruptions and shutdowns are on the rise, with the total number of academic disruptions nearing the number recorded during the Delta variant’s eruption in late August. In fact, School closures have surged 82% as Omicron spreads. These latest interruptions are a result of both the emerging Omicron variant and logistical challenges from educator and staff shortages.

International Responses to Omicron

Large corporations have delayed employees returning to the office, and the sports industry (which had just taken steps to get back on its feet) is facing the threat of massive disruptions. Internationally, the Omicron variant is gaining a significant presence. Omicron is dominant in England and Scotland, with London’s mayor declaring this surge a “major incident.” The new strain is showing resistance even in highly vaccinated South Korea. Given the rise in cases, Israel has banned travel to the U.S. And within the U.S., former Biden transition advisor Michael Osterholm has suggested that Omicron is the harbinger of a “viral blizzard” about to hit the United States. 

On Friday, December 17, President Biden himself urged unvaccinated Americans to receive vaccines and thereby protect themselves from the wave of severe illness and death likely to accompany this winter’s rapidly accelerating surge of infections. While scientists and observers have only recently detected the Omicron COVID variant, its subsequent spread has been extensive both regionally and globally. Though the earliest samples appeared in late November in Botswana, Omicron has already spread to 89 countries by the third week of December–even the countries with high vaccination rates and high former instances of infection.

Early Findings about Omicron

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong have published preliminary data suggesting that the Omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster in the respiratory system than earlier forms of the virus, which may explain its rapid transmission. Omicron exhibits marked resistance to neutralization and even to existing vaccines, evading immunity from past infection and vaccine dosages. Researchers at the Imperial College London found that the risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant is 5.4 times greater than that of the Delta variant. This finding implies that protection against reinfection by Omicron may be as low as 19%. These concerning discoveries about Omicron have prompted industry-wide questions about how to develop new interventions for this new variant. 

As of December 21, 2021, the Omicron variant now makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases in the United States, at 73.2%. Hospitals were already struggling to manage COVID cases when Omicron hit, and many have few beds available to handle the influx of Omicron-driven cases. Nationwide, 92 U.S. cities had hospitals with 100% or more intensive-care occupancy in early December. New York City, the first place in the U.S. hammered by the original COVID wave in March of 2020, has seen an unprecedented rise in cases over recent days, averaging 2900 new cases per day as of December 17. Across the country,infection rates are worse in cold-weather regions, where people are increasingly gathering indoors.

Omicron and COVID in the Long-Term

In the midst of ongoing variants like Omicron, much of the population continues to struggle with the long-term effects of previous COVID infection. These effects include mental fog and mood changes from the virus’s impact on the brain; tremors; and long-term loss of smell and taste. Contagion will likely worsen as falling temperatures bring more gatherings indoors. COVID is likely to become an endemic disease, like influenza, that recurs seasonally and has multiple genetic mutations over time. 

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently expressed his concerns about COVID to a special session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. He stated, “This pestilence–one that we can prevent, detect and treat–continues to cast a long shadow over the world. Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we’re done with COVID-19, it is not done with us. We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic.” 

Implications of Omicron for Schools

With the WHO director-general’s comments as a backdrop, schools face the unique challenge of preventing transmission and avoiding closures. This imperative is all the more significant as the Omicron variant spreads. Many schools have already shut their doors early ahead of winter break to help contain the spread. Schools in New York, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, and Mississippi have announced this week that they’re transitioning to virtual learning to slow the viral spread. As Omicron spreads rapidly, some schools in the US are witnessing dramatic spikes in cases among students and staff

The negative impact of Omicron on schools is not merely viral. These increasing school closures have ramifications for student outcomes. School closures have proven negative psychological and academic effects on students. In light of these detrimental outcomes, many educators are warning against school closures as a transmission mitigation response. 

These advocates against school closure point to the number of students who fell behind academically as a result of last year’s widespread shift to remote learning. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) found that by the end of the 2019-2020 school year, typical third through eight grade students were three to six percentile points behind in reading and eight to 12 points behind in math versus similar students, pre-pandemic .

Loss of in-person learning also reduced opportunities for students to connect with peers. ChalkBeat reports that one study showed that students engaged in virtual learning scored slightly worse on a social and emotional well-being survey. With these consequences in mind, political leaders like New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy have said closing schools would be a last resort because they “know the price paid with learning loss.” 

Facing difficult decisions like whether or not to close schools, school staff and administrators report significant fatigue. The overall sentiment is “one of exhaustion,” says Astein Osei, superintendent of Louis Park Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis. Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, recently explained to USA Today, “The schools want to stay open. But it’s a logistical nightmare. Depending on the infection rate in communities, it’s going to be hard to do that.” 

For schools to keep learning environments afloat amidst this uncertainty, educators, administrators, and support staff must find ways to deliver in-person instruction only in conditions that prioritize health. Skyrocketing infection rates have made this feel impossible and sent new but familiar waves of anxiety through school communities. If in-person learning is most effective for students, but the virus continues to run rampant with new strains, what can administrators do to double down on safety related to in-person learning? 

Combatting Omicron in Schools

On Friday, December 17, NIH director Francis Collins warned, “If Americans don’t take COVID-19 seriously, the country could see up to 1 million infections daily.” Dr. Fauci corroborated these warnings by noting on Monday, December 20, “I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it.” As the vast majority of schools remain open full-time for in-person learning, it is more crucial than ever to keep those shared spaces disinfected to the highest degree possible. 

There are three main steps to ensuring the highest degree of disinfection efficacy for Omicron and previous variants in shared indoor spaces. Cleaning with soap and water to remove debris is the first step, followed by chemical disinfectants. The final step is the application of UV-C light for an appropriate amount of time and at the proper wavelength. That amount of time is determined by the strength of the light source and the distance from that source to the area it is sterilizing. First developed in the 1800s, UV disinfection emerged as a cutting-edge method for enabling cleanliness thanks to a pioneer in sanitary engineering, William F. Wells. Since then, UV-C technology has been instrumental in disinfecting water, air, and surfaces. The Omicron variant does differ in several ways from other strains of COVID but is constructed of the same type of protein sheath that is destroyed and rendered useless by UV-C light. 

Across the globe, higher standards of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) have gained attention as compelling pieces of the puzzle that is COVID mitigation. Many schools are currently searching for the best ways to improve indoor environments through the mitigation of microorganisms in air and on surfaces. These measures can create healthier spaces for students and staff alike, and these efforts will only become more critical as the weather gets colder and school populations must remain indoors. 

A Case Study in COVID Mitigation: LeRoy CUSD

LeRoy CUSD, a K-12 school district in Illinois with 1200 students, was searching for a disinfection solution when COVID first appeared on the scene. Based in a rural area, the LeRoy district has buildings that serve multiple purposes outside of school hours. These buildings are an essential central gathering place for the community. School leaders sensed a need to ensure student safety in uncertain times and maintain the tight-knit bonds of the community. “We needed to find a way to ensure our classrooms and learning experiences could remain as rich and meaningful as possible, given all of the obstacles associated with the virus,” explains Gary Tipsord, superintendent of the district. 

The district implemented R-Zero’s flagship device, Arc, as a disinfection solution. Arc provides 360 degrees of UV-C light to disinfect surfaces in just seven minutes. The device delivers a 99.99% effectiveness rate for destroying and inactivating microorganisms like viruses and bacteria. R-Zero’s UV-C light disinfection combines with other steps in the district’s infection protection process to facilitate safer indoor environments and peace of mind for students and staff.

Tipsord is optimistic about the role Arc will play in his district’s disinfection protocols while they combat COVID now and into the future. He noted, “This machine will continue to benefit our entire school system even after the threat of the pandemic is over.” Tipsord also identified a silver lining of the pandemic, explaining, “Because of COVID, we’ve tracked a great deal more data about illness than we ever have–and we know now exactly where we have a high incidence of absence due to symptomatic illness.” Empowered by those insights and R-Zero’s disinfection technology, LeRoy CUSD can face future infection risks with confidence in their layered mitigation strategies.

We can’t know what the Omicron variant or future iterations of COVID may bring. However, we know that R-Zero’s solution, based in science and independently verified, combats previous variants and other variants that will spring from the COVID pandemic thanks to the virus-deactivating power of UV-C light. As one of the fastest-growing companies in the biosafety arena, R-Zero can help you destroy Omicron and any other microorganism that becomes a threat. 

Contact us today to learn more.

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