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

Tierra Pearson knew that winter would bring a spike in coronavirus infections. So the Chicago mother made sure she and her two sons — seventh- and 10th-graders — were fully vaccinated.

” We were going to prepare,” she said.

But as Pearson watched in horror as the Chicago Teachers Union leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot fought over safety precautions, and schools reopening, Pearson was far from prepared. She felt helpless.

” We, as parents, were completely left out of this conversation,” she stated. “We as parents were completely left out of the conversation about our schools,” she said.

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.

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 been frequent and occurred 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 closings took place in the Northeast and Midwest. However, some schools were beginning to close in South and West, Roche stated. Due to a surge of Omicron cases between teachers, Minneapolis schools will be virtual for two weeks beginning Friday. Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky. switched to remote learning to address COVID staffing shortfalls. In Portland, Ore. however, districts made the switch to remote learning to accommodate increased cases and sick teachers. Students across the U.S. are calling for boycotts and walkouts. If the district does not address safety and health concerns, then it faces a strike by Oakland Unified School District. 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. Around 500 teachers were reported missing. In New York, hundreds of students boycotted classes in protest at testing. They also demanded that remote learning be made possible.

” “We are in a very stressful situation right now because American families have been holding up the economy and the healthcare system, and then we expect to hold up public education,” Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union said. This is a network of grassroots 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. Many parents worry that their children’s mental health and grades will suffer if schools move to remote learning.

” When you shut down schools out of an abundance of caution, you must understand the implications for American families already on the brink.” she stated.

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 as though the bottom is falling out,” Atlas stated, noting that Ashton hadn’t been sent home with additional schoolwork.

” If you send children home, there should be a plan. 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.

” I’m sitting on the edge of my chair, anxiously waiting,” she stated. Are we moving backwards? Are we going to be shut down completely?”

In Atlanta, six metro school districts began classes online after winter break because of high COVID-19 case counts. All but one of the six metro school districts opened online classes Monday after winter break due to high COVID-19 case counts. This was despite continuing to struggle with high cases and staff shortages.

“One of the most consequential takeaways over the past 22 months is that there is no doubt our young people need the positive influences and safe spaces our employees and school campuses provide more than ever,” Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent of Henry County Schools south of Atlanta, wrote in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Pandemic or no pandemic, our belief in the power of in-person learning will remain strong, and we will continue to do everything we can to provide that wholesome experience for the success of our youth….”

Still, many students across the Atlanta area remained out of school.

Even as Atlanta Public Schools resumed in-person classes, Maria Arias, 46, a mother with two children in high school and two in day care, kept her kids home because her family had contracted COVID-19 over the winter break.

A grass-roots member the Latino Assn. Parents of Public Schools Arias was unable to return to work at an ice cream parlor as a server until her youngest children were cleared to go to day care. Arias admitted that it was difficult to keep her older children on track with schoolwork.

In recent months, politicians and unions have been fighting over school closings.

Last week, President Biden said “we have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants.”

“We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. Schools should be kept open, that’s why I support them. He said that they have everything they need.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who took office this month, stood firm on plans to reopen schools in the new year. Adams considered a virtual learning strategy, but this has not been implemented, due to the sharp rise in cases in the city. After a two week standoff between Lightfoot, Chicago Teachers Union and others, the school district was reopened in Chicago this week.

The union wanted the option to revert to remote instruction across the 350,000-student district, and without it, hundreds of teachers refused to teach in person for the last two weeks. Despite this, Chicago leaders, including Lightfoot and others, opposed districtwide remote learning. They claimed that it was dangerous for students and unsafe for schools. After several days of back and forth negotiations, both sides came to an agreement. This included provisions for additional testing as well as metrics that would allow schools affected by major viruses to close their doors and move virtual.

Natalie Neris is the chief of community engagement at Kids First Chicago. This group advocates for more resources for students and says that families’ interests must be considered in all discussions.

“Parents represent the constant stakeholder,” she stated. “Everyone would benefit from recognizing their importance, listening to them more intently, and putting kids first daily.”

For Pearson, 32, a hybrid option provides a sense of ease. She felt sick last week and went along with her children to get tested. All of her results were negative except for the seventh-grade son, who was positive. He had no symptoms. He was kept home from school by his mother this week.

” “It’s all around the place with this virus and things are changing daily,” she stated. “Schools need to adjust and be flexible as well.”

Lee reported from Los Angeles and Jarvie from Atlanta.

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