Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Vivaraenews Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.
Las Vegas school district doing a five-day ‘pause’ due to extreme COVID-related staffing issues
Las Vegas’s Clark County School District announced Tuesday that it will be taking a five-day “pause” in learning due to pandemic-related staffing issues.
“Due to the extreme staffing shortages based on the high number of positive COVID-19 cases, the District is adjusting the 2021-2022 District calendar to provide a five-day pause in alignment with the COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation Guidance,” school officials wrote online. The break in learning will “promote a safe, healthy learning environment” in schools to allow them to “continue face-to-face instruction,” the message reads.
Students now have off from school on Friday and will not return to classrooms until Wednesday. All extracurriculars and athletics have been canceled during that time. The district plans to make up the days in February and April.
According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 3,609 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in students and staff this month. This week, 737 people tested positive for the virus. The district serves 320,000 students.
Community members flooded the district’s Facebook post about the pause, and the majority of the remarks weren’t positive. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but maybe you all should have thought about this last week when the kids started back too soon?” one wrote. “You could have easily kept them out those three days and some this week as well.”
“$10 says they don’t return to school on 1/19…,” another said.
Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Vivaraenews Life that these kinds of staffing shortages are to be expected as cases of COVID-19 soar due to the highly infectious Omicron variant. The U.S. reported 797,216 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday alone, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Until we get on the other side of this Omicron wave, there will be an ongoing risk for staff storages due to the highly infectious nature of Omicron and the large number of people at risk for infection,” he says.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “Everyone is very susceptible to Omicron,” he tells Vivaraenews Life. “We’re going to see a lot of people get infected over the next few weeks to months. That can be challenging for organizations and staffing.”
California adjusts staffing requirements for schools to try to cope with teacher shortages
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Tuesday allowing for more staffing “flexibilities” for schools in the state.
Under the new order, schools will be able to extend assignments for substitute teachers, hire short-term substitute teachers faster and support retired teachers who have returned to the classroom.
The moves will last until March 31 and “are only available to schools that make findings that the flexibilities will support in-person services for students despite staffing shortages caused by the surge in COVID cases.”
The state has also added $2.9 billion to its budget to recruit more teachers and staff, and provide extra compensation, especially for those in high-need schools, along with professional development and training. The state is also distributing N95 and KN95 masks, along with youth KN95 masks, to county education offices to distribute to schools.
The moves come as the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, saw more than 62,000 absences among students and staff due to COVID-19 when they were scheduled to return to school on Tuesday.
“We still have to prioritize in-person schooling and be innovative about it,” Adalja says. He suggests using rapid tests and taking different measures, like having students go to class and staff teaching from home, to keep schools open. “You don’t have to go to virtual learning,” he says.
Russo is hopeful that these kinds of issues will become less of a problem the farther we get from the holiday season. “Holiday gatherings were a major driver for infections,” he points out. “Let’s hope people now appreciate how infectious Omicron is and therefore modify their behavior and enhance their use of mitigation measures — vaccination, boosters and high-quality mask use — to minimize risk.”
Hundreds of New York City students walk out in protest of COVID safety protocols
On Tuesday, hundreds of students at large New York City public schools walked out of classrooms in protest of COVID-19 safety protocols they say aren’t stringent enough, according to WABC-TV..
Among other things, students are calling for remote learning options and increased testing for students and staff, according to Gothamist. Currently, New York City schools test consenting students, including the equivalent of 20 percent of the unvaccinated student population.
Exact numbers of students who participated in the walkout are hard to pinpoint, but the New York City Department of Education’s website shares daily attendance data that showed about 83 percent of Brooklyn Tech High School students and 86 percent of Stuyvesant High School students attended school on Tuesday, says the Washington Post. By comparison, on Thursday, 86 percent of Brooklyn Tech and nearly 89 percent of Stuyvesant High School students were in attendance, says state data.
On Thursday, 6,188 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19, according to a city dashboard.
New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks wrote on Twitter Tuesday that he is “inviting student leaders to meet with me so we can work together for safe and open schools.”
“We understand the concerns of our school communities during this crisis,” he said. “The best decisions are made when everyone has a seat at the table.”
On Thursday, Banks said he was trying to negotiate a remote option with the city’s teachers’ union, according to Chalkbeat. “If I could figure out a way to do a remote option starting tomorrow, I would. … It’s not quite as simple as that because you have to negotiate this stuff with the unions,” he said. Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday he is considering a remote option as well.
Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City actress, former NYC mayoral candidate and education activist, who has compared New York City school drop-offs to the Netflix thriller Squid Game, also spoke out about the walkout, noting that protesting students were given a lunch detention as punishment.
“The HS students who staged a walk-out for real Covid safety in schools are being punished by being exposed EVEN MORE,” she wrote on Twitter. “Students are most exposed when they are forced to have lunch inside masks off.” Nixon’s tweet was posted with a snapshot from an email from school administrators that told a student to report to detention for leaving school grounds. “This is a serious offense, so please make better choices in the future,” the email says.
Increasing testing in schools is helpful if it’s done on a daily or every-other-day basis “with minimal turnaround time,” the University of Buffalo’s Russo says. But, he points out, “to do so is resource-intensive and logistically challenging.” Instead, Russo says, “executing the safety protocols both in and outside of the school setting is the best means to minimize infections and keep everyone safe.”
Johns Hopkins’s Adalja notes that schools have had best practices from the CDC to minimize COVID-19 infections since before vaccines were available. “There are ways to do this safely,” he says.
White House plans to distribute 10 million more COVID tests to schools this month
The Biden administration announced on Wednesday a plan to distribute 10 million more COVID-19 tests to schools across the country each month.
The White House said in a fact sheet that officials will distribute 5 million free rapid tests and 5 million free PCR tests to schools on a monthly basis. “These additional tests will help schools safely remain open and implement screening testing and test to stay programs,” the fact sheet reads. “With the additional 10 million tests per month, we will make available to schools more than double the volume of testing that took place in schools across the nation in November 2021.”
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky doubled down on the administration’s commitment to keeping learning in-person during a Senate hearing on Tuesday, saying that “schools should be the first places to open, and the last places to close.”
Experts agree that schools should stay open, even as Omicron surges across the country. “Given the importance of in-person learning, we need to make every effort to keep schools open and importantly maximize attendance,” Russo says. “An increase in testing, especially if used for ‘test-to-stay’ programs, will help to achieve this goal.” But, he adds, people “cannot lose sight of the importance of vaccination, mask use and ventilation as being the pillars of any plan to protect our students, staff and teachers.”
Schools being open “should be the default, but unfortunately we haven’t done that in the U.S.,” Adalja says. “Having ready access to tests makes it easier for schools to stay open,” he adds.