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As threat of Omicron variant looms, school closures continue ticking upward

Asher Lehrer-Small | December 2, 2021

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Even before the World Health Organization labeled the Omicron coronavirus strain a new “variant of concern” Friday, school closures were continuing to increase across the country.

Last week, 621 schools across 58 districts announced new closures for a variety of reasons including teacher burnout, staffing shortages and virus outbreaks, according to counts from Burbio, a data service that has tracked school policy through the pandemic. Since the start of the academic year, 9,313 campuses across 916 districts nationwide have added extra days off.

The numbers suggest that nearly 10 percent of the nation’s roughly 98,000 K-12 schools have experienced closures this year. In Maryland, more than 3 in 10 schools have been affected by at least one day of disruption this academic year. In North Carolina, where such events have been most frequent, the number is above 4 in 10.

Now, schools already struggling to keep classrooms open could face further challenges should the recently identified Omicron variant, which has already begun to show up in U.K. schools, fuel a COVID surge this winter.

“This is only going to make matters worse,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said. “We already see that most districts are short-handed.”

Earlier in November, lack of substitute teachers forced multiple large school systems to announce unplanned closures as teachers took additional time off around Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

Shutting down is a last-resort option that schools should seek to avoid, said Domenech. But sometimes it’s school leaders’ only viable choice, he said.

“If they have a staff that’s on the verge of burnout and they keep pushing them, they’re only going to lose more staff. And that’s going to result in more closures and fewer kids being in person.”

Now, with K-12 staff stretched thin in districts across the country, health experts are scrambling to understand the threat posed by the new variant, which Moderna’s President Dr. Stephen Hoge described as having a “Frankenstein mix” of mutations.

In South Africa, where Omicron was first identified Nov. 24, the strain has contributed to a sharp spike in cases, leading doctors to believe that it is more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. But whether those cases are more severe, and exactly how much protection is delivered by the vaccines, remains unclear.

The South African doctor who first discovered the variant told the BBC on Sunday that symptoms have generally been “extremely mild.” But other experts point out that these initial observations are only based on a very small sample size.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” said President Joe Biden in an address to the nation Monday morning.

Health experts, the president said, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe that existing COVID vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against the new strain, especially for individuals who have upped their immunity through booster shots. But it will be one to two weeks before scientists gain more precise results on just how effectively antibodies built up through vaccination neutralize the Omicron variant, Dr. Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CNBC on Monday. Still, there’s reason to be hopeful, she said.

“The current vaccines don’t just generate the variant-specific antibodies. They try to generate kind of a broad antibody response,” said the Washington, D.C.-based physician.

Because of the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened their language on booster doses to recommend that all adults “should,” rather than “may,” receive a third shot six months after their second. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported Monday evening that Pfizer-BioNTech plans to request that extra vaccine doses be authorized for 16- and 17-year olds, after initial booster data out of Israel showed positive results within that age group.

While the details of the new variant come into focus, Atlanta-based pediatrician Jennifer Shu said K-12 buildings need to keep their guard up to stave off in-school transmission.

“It’s important for schools to continue protective measures such as masking, hand washing, physical distancing when possible, disinfecting, optimizing ventilation, etc. to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the doctor wrote in an email.

At this point, Domenech said he is not aware of any school leaders within his network having changed their safety procedures in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Over the course of this school year, many districts have moved to introduce ‘test-to-stay’ measures that allow students potentially exposed to the virus to skip quarantine, provided they test negative for COVID on a rapid test. The WHO confirmed Sunday that existing PCR tests do accurately detect infection from the Omicron variant, but studies are ongoing to determine the effectiveness at recognizing the new strain of the rapid antigen testing employed in most test-to-stay schemes.

Since September, there have been over 1.7 million new pediatric coronavirus cases, and in the week before Thanksgiving, children accounted for about a quarter of new infections, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Weekly youth cases are on the rise, up 32 percent as of Nov. 18 over the previous week to 142,000, but they are well below their peak in early September of 252,000.

Over 19 million youth have received at least one vaccine dose, President Biden said in his Monday address. Over 99 percent of schools nationwide are now open for in-person learning, he pointed out, compared to less than half this time last year.

The new strain further underscores the importance of continuing efforts to boost vaccination rates within school communities, said Domenech, and raises the stakes for immunizing newly eligible children.

“The bottom line here is that unless we get to the point where the majority of people are vaccinated, where we can get to that herd immunity point, these variants are going to keep coming [and] kids are going to get infected,” he said.

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