Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Omicron Leaves U.S. Parents, Teachers, and Students on Edge

Maybe this variant is peaking. We'll see. 

At LAT, "Anxious. Helpless. Upset. Omicron surge leaves U.S. parents, teachers and students on edge":

Tierra Pearson suspected the winter months would mean a sharp surge in coronavirus cases. So the Chicago mother made sure she and her two sons — seventh- and 10th-graders — were fully vaccinated.

“We were going to be prepared,” she recalled.

But as she kept the TV news on around the clock over much of the last two weeks, watching in dismay as leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot battled over safety precautions and schools reopening, Pearson felt far from prepared. She felt helpless.

“We as parents were totally left out of the conversation,” she said. “We had no voice about our schools, and that was truly a shame.”

As the Omicron variant continues to propel a massive surge in infections that has hit many educators and school staff, parents across the nation are faced with painful deja vu: toggling between virtual and in-person schooling and trying to keep up with constantly evolving district policies.

This week the Biden administration announced that it is planning to make 10 million COVID-19 test kits available each month for schools as part of its push to keep classrooms open during this wave of infections — a critical step considering that vaccination rates are lower among children.

Registered nurse Rafael Sanchez, left, evaluates COVID-19 patient.

Overall, 63% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but among children ages 12 to 17 the rate sits at 54% and among those 5 to 11, the rate drops to 17%. (In Vermont, 48% of that age group are vaccinated; in California, nearly 19%; and in Mississippi, 5%.)

But disruptions have occurred and at regular intervals.

On average, about 4% of schools across the country — 4,179 of 98,000 schools — dealt with COVID-19 disruptions such as closures this week, according to Burbio, a K-12 school opening tracker. That’s down slightly from 5,376 schools last week and a fraction of the peak that occurred around Labor Day 2020 when more than 60% of schools were closed, said Dennis Roche, Burbio’s co-founder.

Most of the closures were in the Northeast and Midwest, but some schools were starting to close in the West and South, Roche said. In Minneapolis, schools will go virtual for two weeks starting Friday because of a surge in Omicron cases among teachers. In Louisville, Ky., Jefferson County Public Schools shifted to remote learning because of COVID staffing shortages, while in the Portland, Ore., metro area, school districts moved to remote learning due to surges in cases and teachers being out sick.

Across the U.S., students are threatening boycotts and walkouts. The Oakland Unified School District faces such a strike unless it addresses a list of pandemic health and safety concerns. Students want the district to return to remote learning unless it provides KN95 masks for all kids and are calling for increased testing, among other demands. On Jan. 7, 12 district schools were forced to close after teachers staged a “sickout,” citing COVID worries. About 500 teachers were reported absent. And in New York, hundreds of students in recent days boycotted classes and staged walkouts over concerns about testing and called for remote learning to be implemented.

“We’re really in a pressure cooker situation right now, because American families are holding up the economy, we’re holding up the healthcare system and then we’re also expected to hold up the public education system,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a network of grass-roots parent groups. “A lot of families across this country are absolutely at their breaking point.”

For many parents who live paycheck to paycheck, taking a few days off when schools close can mean the difference between having groceries or not and making rent or not, Rodrigues said. Beyond the financial loss, many parents worried that their kids’ mental health and grades would deteriorate when schools switch to remote learning.

“When you close down schools over an abundance of caution, understand what you are asking of American families who are already at the brink,” she said.

This week the Clark County School District, which spans Las Vegas and is the nation’s fifth largest school system with more than 320,000 students, announced it was canceling classes for two days due to extreme staffing shortages.

Jessica Atlas, a 46-year-old single mother, was already frustrated with the school district for not planning activities for her son, Ashton, 9, while he quarantined this week after he caught the flu and she tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I feel like the bottom’s falling out,” Atlas said, noting that Ashton had not been sent home with any additional

schoolwork. “There should be a plan in place if you send kids home. But there’s no organization, no real leadership and no real plan to catch these babies failing all over the place.”

The district said there would be no remote learning on the canceled school days.