Chicago Fights Over In-Person Learning
The highly contagious Omicron variant is sowing chaos in schools across the U.S.
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In our first send of 2022, it feels a little like the beginning of 2021 — in other words, we have a full slate of coronavirus news. First up: brinkmanship in Chicago, as cases surge. And then: Omicron-fueled chaos across the country.
An Omicron battle in Chicago
There are no classes today in the country’s third largest school district.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to stay home during a coronavirus surge. The union said that 73 percent of members who voted favored pausing in-person instruction and returning to online teaching.
City officials, who want to keep schools open, responded by canceling Wednesday classes for public school students, but kept buildings open for emergency child care.
“Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “We can’t forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.”
The union and the city have a notably contentious relationship. In 2019, teachers went on strike for 11 days and exacted concessions on pay, class sizes and support staff. In January 2021, they also sparred over reopening classrooms.
The Omicron variant, which has pushed cases in the city to record levels, has only made things worse.
Like other school systems, Chicago has had to confront a shortage of Covid tests, and a far-from-universal vaccination rate among students. Large numbers of staff members have called in sick. Just about everyone is anxious.
“That fear is kind of transformed from the medical worst-case scenario to, this is going to be another month, another semester where my daughter’s going to miss out on consistent education, getting to know her friends, getting to know her teachers,” said Ismael El-Amin, whose daughters are vaccinated and attend two Chicago schools.
Union members, and many parents, have criticized the district’s response and say conditions in classrooms are unsafe. During the holiday break, the union had asked for either universal P.C.R. testing of students and staff or a two-week transition to remote learning.
The C.D.C. has advised schools to avoid quarantines and closures by using a protocol known as test-to-stay, in which close contacts of positive virus cases take two rapid antigen tests in a week; only those who test positive must stay home.
But many districts, including Chicago, said they did not have nearly the number of rapid tests they needed. And despite a shortage, the district bungled an effort to test students over winter break. It mailed out roughly 150,000 P.C.R. tests. Most were never returned, and of the 40,000 or so tests that were mailed in, a majority produced invalid results.
“We are between a rock and a hard place — the rock being the pandemic, the hard place being an intractable, incompetent mayor,” Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s vice president, said this week. The suggested two-week pause, she said, would be “so they could get themselves together.”
While Omicron is more contagious than previous iterations of the virus, early indications are that it is also less severe. As in the rest of the country, vaccinated adults in Chicago have had significantly lower rates of hospitalization and death. More than 90 percent of Chicago Public Schools employees are fully vaccinated.
And children of all ages, regardless of vaccination status, have overwhelmingly been spared severe outcomes. Data from Chicago and elsewhere also shows that in-school transmission of the coronavirus has been limited: A majority of teacher and student cases originate outside school buildings.
“We’ve got to do risk-benefit analysis here, and, at least among children, we have to think of this as similar to flu,” Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, said, adding that Chicago was averaging seven child hospitalizations per day because of Covid-19.
Pedro Martinez, the district’s new chief executive, also pushed back against a districtwide shutdown, suggesting that misinformation was at the root of anxiety over reopening. He spoke of investments to improve ventilation systems.
Martinez said he had continued “to plead, including with C.T.U. leadership, to keep the schools open, to keep the classes going.”
Other Omicron disruptions
A vast majority of U.S. public schools appeared to be operating as planned this week. Still, the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, along with labor and testing shortages, has led to a growing number of disruptions.
Several large districts — including those in Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Newark — postponed reopening after winter break or switched to remote instruction because of outbreaks and staffing shortages. Some of the announcements arrived at the last minute, as school leaders struggled to respond to a rapidly changing situation.
Heather Malin’s 5-year-old son is attending in-person kindergarten in New York City this week. Malin is scheduled to have breast cancer surgery in a few weeks, and is terrified that testing positive could delay the procedure.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
The global surge. The coronavirus is spreading faster than ever at the start of 2022, but the last days of 2021 brought the encouraging news that the Omicron variant produces less severe illness than earlier waves. As such, governments are focusing more on expanding vaccination than limiting the spread.
“It was an agonizing decision,” Malin told The New York Times. “Will he be safe? Will the school have the resources to test and adequately mask everyone?”
The closures appeared to be concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest, regions where Democratic Party policymakers and teachers’ unions have taken a more cautious approach. Several of the shuttered districts serve predominantly Black, Hispanic and low-income students, raising concerns about the educational gaps that widened during the pandemic.
Some Republicans are staking their political reputations in open classrooms.
In Texas, officials are pushing to resume classes as planned. And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated that state officials would not allow public schools to close, despite a major spike in cases.
“You have worse outcomes by closing schools,” said DeSantis, who has increased his national profile by rejecting coronavirus lockdowns and mandates for much of the pandemic. “Kids need to be in school.”
But across the country, principals have reported large numbers of staff members calling in sick. Classrooms have had to close by necessity, even if districts are trying to stay open.
The ongoing chaos has unnerved parents who are desperate for some kind of stability. Some families were given just a few days or even hours of notice about school closures, leading to the all-too-familiar pandemic scramble to adjust child-care arrangements and work schedules.
“When we started the pandemic, parenting and teaching while working remotely was hard,” Kate Hurley, who lives in Minneapolis, told The Times. She sent her 7-year-old daughter to school on Monday with a KN95 mask but kept her 4-year-old son home because he isn’t eligible for a vaccine.
“Now we are tired and drained and nearly two years in,” Hurley wrote. “Doing it all over again feels insurmountable.”
Other virus news
The F.D.A. authorized Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine boosters for 12- to 15-year-olds, but vaccination rates for children have been disappointing in many places.
For millions of California students, school reopening hinges on testing.
In some parts of the South, students have returned to mask requirements.
Michigan is hiring more than 550 mental health professionals for schools, in part to help students cope with pandemic stress.
A great read: The number of children and teenagers killed by gunfire has risen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, The Times reports. A surge of pandemic gun-buying, among other things, has put more children into close contact with guns, both as victims and shooters.
Many, many colleges started the spring semester online.
Community colleges continue to see major declines in enrollment.
The University of Notre Dame is one of several schools to reinstate its mask mandate.
Public university students in New York State will soon be required to get vaccine boosters. Many other colleges and universities have also required boosters.
What else we’re reading
Educational funding and policy
Lawmakers in California may uncouple school funding from attendance and instead focus on annual enrollment, which could benefit the state’s largest districts.
In Kentucky, districts affected by tornadoes asked for an extended freeze on a funding formula that ties money to average daily attendance.
A lawsuit is challenging Ohio’s school voucher plan, saying it resegregates some districts and cuts into state funding meant to help struggling districts.
Race, identity and politics
A district in Rochester, N.Y., is dropping “Jingle Bells” from its curriculum, a secular holiday classic that some scholars believe may have been first performed at a minstrel show.
A good read: Classroom discussions of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol willvary widely based on where students live, The Associated Press reports.
And the rest …
Schools in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania delayed reopening following a snowstorm.
After the fatal shooting at Oxford High School in suburban Detroit, the school district will require clear backpacks for older students. Experts say the policy does not address the root causes of gun violence in schools.
A high school track coach in Maryland was arrested on charges that he had “sexual contact with at least one student.”
A good read: Skilled trade schools are making a comeback, as high school students doubt the value of a four-year degree, The Washington Post reports.
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