Omicron deals one more blow to schools that have weathered COVID-19 and violence
The St. Louis Park Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis held in-person learning all semester, closing no schools for COVID-19 infections despite the spread of the delta variant.
"The overall feeling is one of exhaustion," Superintendent Astein Osei told the school board Nov. 23 before an unusual midyear vote to add two days to the holiday break.
Across the country, school districts and families are stumbling toward the finish line of a punishing semester. At some points, nearly all schools appeared back to normal with daily, in-person instruction. But disruptions abounded. COVID-19 exposures sent kids and staff home to quarantine. Teachers battled student misbehavior, from low-level defiance to fights, threats and gun violence. Staffing shortages shot up. Parents argued over race, public health and other issues.
And now, omicron. As the country braces for an onslaught of infections driven by the more transmissible COVID-19 variant, schools and districts are shuttering and some are preparing to return to virtual instruction – the very mode of education this year was supposed to jettison.
"We're going to see a return, basically, to a good portion of how things looked last year," Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, lamented on Monday.
"Everybody wants to keep the schools open," he said. "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."
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Back to online school
On Friday, Prince George's County School District in Maryland – one of the largest districts on the East Coast – announced a shift to virtual classes starting Monday until at least Jan. 18 because of an uptick in COVID-19 infections. That leaves more than 136,000 students without classroom contact for the next month.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called the move a terrible mistake. District CEO Monica Goldson said it allows school staff to deliver instruction while prioritizing their own health.
The problem: Virtual learning doesn't work well academically, socially or emotionally for many students, particularly those who lack safe, supportive households and steady internet connections.
Black and Latino students, many of whom lacked robust education opportunities before the pandemic, have fallen further behind during long bouts of virtual instruction.
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"For the past year and a half, almost two years, our kids have been exposed to more trauma than ever before," said Tunette Powell, a mother of three children in Los Angeles and a diversity and inclusion expert.
"I work at a school that primarily serves wealthy families, and we're not talking about shutting down at all," Powell said. "But if I was in South Los Angeles, where there are lots of communities of color, those discussions would already be happening."
Some smaller districts and schools aren't going virtual – they're simply turning what would have been regular school days into vacation days.
"No school next week like originally planned," the Mendota School District in Illinois said last week when announcing an early start to the holiday break to keep staff and students safe.
Districts closing early for winter break are a small percentage of the overall school population, said Dennis Roche, whose company, Burbio, has tracked districts' responses to COVID-19.
"The bigger question will be what January looks like when all K-12 schools are set to return," he said Monday.
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Discipline issues, mental health already a challenge
For many educators, the additional days off – or online, as the case may be – are welcomed as much for an emotional break as for physical safety.
Misbehavior in schools as students readjust to classroom expectations has taxed teachers. Some districts closed for mental health days this fall.
'Stretched too thin':Staff burnout has schools canceling class or going remote
In Denver Public Schools, fights increased 21% this fall compared with pre-pandemic times, district officials said.
In Akron Public Schools in Ohio, the teachers union sounded alarm bells last month over "increased rates of highly concerning student behaviors," including more weapons on campus, threats and verbal and physical altercations.
Teachers said they felt stuck in crisis mode.
In Washington, Angelina Zara, a fourth grade teacher, said students get frustrated with each other more quickly, and play soon turns to anger.
"Their lid will flip a little faster," she said.
Schools are under unprecedented stress, which has caused a higher level of immature student behavior and a substantial increase in fighting, said Richard Welsh, a New York University professor who studies school discipline.
Discipline issues were rising before the pandemic. More than 80% of school administrators and 71% of teachers said disruptive behaviors in their schools increased from 2016 to 2019, according to one study.
Schools are seeing a spike in youth mental health challenges as well. The issue was made worse by the "stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice," the American Academy of Pediatrics and groups that represent child psychiatrists and children's hospitals said in October.
This month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a rare public health advisory spotlighting the youth mental health crisis.
In early 2021, emergency room visits for suspected youth suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for boys compared with early 2019, the advisory said. Gun violence in schools reached record levels – twice as many shootings in schools this fall compared with before the pandemic.
Increasing kids' access to high-quality, culturally competent mental health care is key to addressing such crises, health officials said. Schools play a major role in that, but they've been stretched by staffing shortages and overwhelming demand.
"I have lines at my door," said Phyllis Fagell, a counselor at Sheridan School in Washington and a consultant on middle school behavior. "The nurse does, too. We're constantly exchanging customers."
Happy holidays. Are you vaccinated?
As challenging as the school environment may be, it's still the best place for students to receive academic, emotional and social support, health experts said.
"Going back to remote learning as a quick strategy only exacerbates the overall school climate and mental wellness of students and staff," said Sara Bode, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on School Health.
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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed a strategy called "test to stay," which allows unvaccinated students to stay in school after an exposure, as long as they test negative for the virus at least twice within the week.
Parents should do their part during the holidays, said April Kapu, head of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. They should ask people they're gathering with if they're vaccinated or if they've tested negative before the occasion, Kapu said Monday in a statement to USA TODAY.
That might be an uncomfortable question, she said, but it's "how we can get our kids’ lives back on track, even amid the spread of the Omicron variant."
Contributing: Alia Wong, USA TODAY; Jennifer Pignolet, Akron Beacon Journal; Madeline Mitchell, Cincinnati Enquirer; Megan Henry, Columbus Dispatch
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.