Omicron surge stirs remote learning fight and disruptions in US schools

New year brings uneven school returns after holiday break with record Covid-19 cases

A person wearing a face mask stands at the entrance of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools. AFP
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US schools are wrestling with a return to classrooms after the winter break as the country registers record numbers of coronavirus cases, with each state adapting its rules on the fly as the situation changes daily.

The highly contagious Omicron strain of Covid-19 that is leading to teacher shortages has raised the spectre of a broad return to remote learning, an unpopular and disruptive course of action that education experts warn has an adverse impact on kids' learning and their mental health.

At least 4,700 schools have announced pandemic-related disruptions in the first week of the new year, according to the Burbio website, which tracks changes in 1,200 districts.

There is no federal Covid plan for schools across the country, with each state implementing its own measures. Changes so far this year have included delayed re-openings, a return to remote learning or proof of a negative virus test before a child can resume in-person classes.

A Chicago teacher's union on Tuesday voted to move classes online — affecting more than 600 schools in the country's third-largest school system. But the city government refused to hold virtual classes, resulting in the cancellation of school on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

In New York City, which is recording a seven-day positive Covid testing rate of 34 per cent, the nation's largest school system has remained open despite attempts by the teacher's union to go remote.

“We advised the new mayor that it would be safest to allow our school system to go remote temporarily until we could get a handle on the staffing challenges that each school is about to face as we return,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in an email on January 2.

“However he feels strongly that schools need to remain open.”

The US government disagrees with altered schooling, as President Joe Biden's administration had disbursed funding for Covid-19 testing and ventilation improvements in schools across the country.

“Schools can and should be open this winter,” Mr Biden insisted on Tuesday. “We have all the tools to keep kids safe.”

But heated conversations over keeping schools open have been brewing along political and economic lines, especially due to the negative impact distance schooling has on children.

“Academically, some students are struggling with remote learning and are losing critical years of academic material since this may not be the way they learn best,” psychologist Dr Holly Schiff told The National.

Students also feel socially isolated and have had their routines and structure disrupted. Even for students who did not have mental health issues before, we are now seeing increases in anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.”

But whether mental health and learning concerns should trump physical concerns remains to be seen.

During the current surge, the American Academy of Paediatrics and Children's Hospital Association has recorded the highest ever number of Covid-19 cases among children.

Though while the Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) is reporting a spike in the number of paediatric hospital admissions for Covid-19, the rate of admissions for children infected with the disease stands at one in 100,000.

Rebecca Riley, an art teacher in New York City, gives pupils a lesson in her classroom on January 5, 2022. AFP

“At this time, it appears that severe illness due to Covid-19 is uncommon among children,” the paediatrics association wrote in its December report.

“However, there is an urgent need to collect more data to assess the severity of illness related to new variants as well as the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”

Another concern is that children could be infected and bring home the deadly virus to vulnerable family members.

A study published in Paediatrics in October 2021 found that at least one in 500 US children has lost one or both parents or caregivers to Covid-19.

Educators and school staff are also being infected during the Omicron surge, leading to severe staffing shortages. Some schools are paying substitute teachers higher rates than usual to fill in as staff self-isolate.

“My district, like many throughout the US, did not prioritise staff safety,” former teacher Bethany McCarter told The National.

Ms McCarter taught for six years outside Dallas, Texas, before leaving her role in 2020. She now blogs on science education and home schools her children.

“Barely any regulations were put in place to prevent Covid-19 and teachers were not allowed to work from home. Our health benefits were minimal and did not adequately pay for sick leave,” she said.

The CDC has reported that at least 15 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated and 53 per cent of children aged 12 to 17 have been fully vaccinated.

Some school systems have required teachers to be vaccinated, and the mandates have faced legal challenges in some regions. Currently, 73 per cent of the US adult population is fully vaccinated.

The health agency on Wednesday approved the Pfizer-BioNTech booster for children over the age of 12.

Updated: April 27, 2022, 1:36 PM