Schools Adapt for Return From Break as COVID-19 Cases Surge

(AP ) -
School staff members wait for students to arrive for in-person classes outside Public School 188 The Island School in Manhattan. (AP Photo/John Minchillo/File)

Mask requirements are returning in some school districts that had dropped them. Some are planning to vastly ramp up virus testing among students and staff. And a small number of school systems are switching to remote learning — for just a short while, educators hope.

With coronavirus infections soaring, the return from schools’ winter break will be different than planned for some as administrators again tweak protocols and make real-time adjustments in response to the shifting pandemic. All are signaling a need to stay flexible.

Long after the widespread closures in the pandemic’s early days, schools and elected leaders say they are using the lessons and tools of the past two years to try to navigate the latest surge without long-term shutdowns, which had woeful effects on learning and students’ well-being.

In the nation’s largest school system, New York City, two million at-home test kits provided by the state will be used to increase testing following the break, officials announced this week. Students whose classmates test positive can keep coming to school as long as their at-home tests are negative and they don’t have symptoms.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City educators, questioned whether the new testing initiatives will be available in every school by the time schools reopen Monday.

“We are moving closer to a safe reopening of school next week. But we are not there yet,” he said.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, officials announced the purchase of 100,000 laptops in case they are needed for remote learning in January, though district leaders said they hope to avoid a system-wide closure. The Chicago Teachers Union has proposed pausing in-person learning unless new safety measures are introduced, including negative COVID tests for returning students.

To help keep as many students in school as possible, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona endorsed test-to-stay in December as an alternative to the previously recommended 10-day quarantines. Hundreds of schools have adopted test-to-stay policies for students who have had contact with an infected classmate.

“The goal remains to keep all schools open for in-person learning five days a week throughout the 2021-22 school year and beyond,” Cardona said in a message to schools marking the halfway point of the academic year. He said 99% of schools were open in-person in December, compared with 46% last January.

Out of more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, relatively few have announced plans to start remotely after winter break.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where one in four people was testing positive for the virus, the school system announced Thursday that all employees, volunteers and visitors will be required to wear face coverings at schools and facilities, and students will be strongly encouraged to wear them. A state law prevents school districts from imposing mask mandates for students.

Some school systems are moving toward requiring vaccinations for students, but not anytime soon. In the Los Angeles school district, which was among the first to announce mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for students, a Jan. 10 deadline for students 12 and older was postponed until fall of 2022. Officials said the earlier date would have barred about 27,000 unvaccinated students from campuses.

Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early 2022.