As a new school year approaches, COVID-19 infections are on the rise again, fueled by highly transmissible variants, which fill families with fear. They fear the return of a pandemic plague: outbreaks that sideline large numbers of teachers, close school buildings and force students back into distance learning.
Some school systems across the country have moved to bolster the workforce to minimize disruption, but many are hoping for the best without doing much differently from last year.
Even some of the districts that experienced the most disruptions to personal education amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, point to few specific changes in their prevention efforts.
Among them are Baltimore County schools, where the number of days individual schools in the district were unable to provide personalized education added together in January, according to data from the private research firm Burbio, which tracks more than 5,000 school districts nationwide. District officials said they did not see the need to change protocols.
“We don’t expect significant changes to our plan; we don’t expect significant disruptions,” said Charles Herndon, a spokesperson for Baltimore County Public Schools. “What we expect to see are waves of COVID in 2022 and 2023, and I’m sure there will be times when more people will be absent and there will be times when everything is fine.”
Still, the district is willing to reschedule classes online if necessary.
“We certainly hope we don’t have to go that extreme, but it’s an option if we have to consider it,” he said.
Teacher shortages remain a major concern, even bigger than COVID-19 itself, said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, an association of school superintendents.
“That’s the bigger concern — that they’ll have the necessary staff to staff all the classrooms, to staff all the programs — which will only get worse if there’s a COVID outbreak,” he said.
The schools in Philadelphia illustrate how disruptive peaks can be. As of January, the virus caused 114 city schools to go remote for an average of about eight days each — a total of 920 cumulative days of distance learning, more than any other district in Burbio’s data for January through June.
Amid a shortage of substitute teachers, schools have been forced to hire central office staff, combine classrooms or temporarily go remote, district spokesman Marissa Orbanek said.
The district has switched to a new employment agency and is aiming to fulfill 90% of replacement requests this year, Orbanek said. They also now have over 100 additional teachers, substitutes who show up at the same school every day in case of last minute absences.
A parent, James Fogarty, saw his elementary school-age children return to online learning several times last year in Pittsburgh, a district where there were 46 outages in the second half of last year. He hopes the district and communities can identify problems earlier and work on better solutions, such as identifying backup options for families.
“How do we build systems that are flexible to absorb the shocks as they happen, other than saying to families, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own and I hope you don’t get fired for missing your shift? job,” said Fogarty, the executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh, an organization that promotes equality in schools. “That’s not a satisfactory answer for me.”
Schools can’t afford more disruptions that distract them from the critical work of helping children catch up, says Thomas Kane, an education policy researcher at Harvard. Students in lower-income schools who did more than half a year of distance learning lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of learning, he said, while higher-income schools lost 13 weeks.
“We have experienced a historical broadening of the performance differences between blacks and whites, between Latinx students and whites, between high and low-poverty schools,” he said. “If we don’t actively try to plug those gaps, they will become permanent and there will be huge consequences for children.”
Schools hope disruptions will be less likely as many districts have invested in better ventilation and vaccines are available for children as young as six months old. In addition to ramping up the hiring of replacements, some of the districts hardest hit last year have made minor changes to their protocols.
At Baltimore City schools, which are separate from the county school system, officials say expanded access to rapid tests will help schools stay open if a new variant pops up in the fall. The school previously relied on slower PCR testing, and when cases of omicron increased in January, the district’s testing regime couldn’t keep up. The move to a faster test helped the district avoid school-wide closures for the rest of the spring.
“We firmly believe that with the protocols we have in place, we will be able to keep personal learning going as the virus ebbs and flows and as new variants come – in anticipation of an unforeseen variant that really changes the game said Cleo Hirsch, director of the district’s COVID-19 response.
The school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, had 338 cumulative days of disrupted education in January, the second highest of all districts in Burbio’s data. District spokesman Christopher Cram said that was partly due to a policy that automatically activated hybrid or virtual learning if the number of COVID cases in a school rose to 5%. Work is underway on an updated safety plan for the new school year, he said.
In Columbus, Ohio, where the school system saw 106 disruptions at the beginning of 2022 due to staff absences, the district did not point to any planned changes to its policy to prepare for potential spikes in the new year. “As we look to open schools in August, the district will continue to follow current mitigation protocols to protect staff, students and families,” spokesman Jacqueline Bryant said.
Lolita Augenstein, president of the Council of PTAs in Columbus, said she is optimistic this year will be better. The district has focused on hiring teachers and substitutes, she said, and educators are better trained to teach online when needed.
“We may not have it all figured out, and there are new variants and new concerns that have cropped up,” said Augenstein, whose daughter graduated from a district high school last year. “But children are resilient. … The families are trained to go back and forth between remote and the building.”
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