- Schools and the rest of the world are awaiting more details on the threat posed by the omicron variant of COVID-19, which has been labeled a variant of concern by both the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization.
- A day after the first case of omicron was detected in the U.S., the Biden administration doubled down on calls for vaccines and booster shots to keep schools open, announcing Thursday it will launch hundreds of family vaccination clinics.
- Meanwhile, 9,313 schools across 916 districts have already closed amid staffing shortages, teacher burnout or COVID-19 outbreaks at some point this academic year, according to Burbio, which is tracking data across 80,000 K-12 school calendars. School health experts stress the importance of keeping schools open as much as possible.
Questions still remain as to whether current COVID-19 vaccines can effectively fight off the omicron variant, as well as on the variant’s level of severity. But as these details develop, schools are already facing pandemic fatigue as teachers and students go through a third academic year impacted by COVID-19, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
Anderson said it’s important to give teachers more breaks, especially now.
“A lot of school leaders have pandemic fatigue, so now adding this additional layer of the omicron variant is probably just the one thing school leaders don’t want to hear at this time as they’re trying to deal with everything else,” Anderson said. “If we keep having variants pop up throughout the school year, we are going to be dealing with burnout in a totally different way by the end of this year.”
Even with a new variant looming, it’s vital schools remain open because of the learning loss and mental health implications for students, said Linda Mendonca, president of the National Association of School Nurses. But switching temporarily to virtual learning is still a possibility, too, she said.
“Children and adolescents, they need to be in the school building learning in-person,” Mendonca said. “I don’t particularly think that we’ll go backward … of course, it’s all dependent on community transmission.”
In a way, the emergence of omicron is creating flashbacks for schools to when the delta variant appeared just as they prepared to return to full in-person learning this fall, said Jeanie Alter, executive director of the American School Health Association.
It’s important that a majority of the K-12 population are eligible to get vaccinated now that children 5 years and older can get a COVID-19 shot, Alter said.
School health experts agreed it’s necessary to stay strong on mitigation strategies such as mask and vaccine requirements to keep schools open as more information on omicron emerges. However, public pushback on such policies remains a challenge, they said.
The CDC still recommends K-12 schools promote vaccination as the leading public health prevention strategy and that a universal masking policy be required for all students, staff and visitors in K-12 buildings.
School nurses are also waiting for more information about the omicron variant so they can share accurate messages with families about next steps, Mendonca said. Nonetheless, she is advising nurses to not give up on mitigation strategies, though she understands school safety procedures vary nationwide.
Mendonca also recommends school nurses push for holding school vaccine clinics with community partners.
The challenge with COVID-19 and these emerging variants is that schools are having to constantly change things up but weren’t designed to do that, Anderson said.
“Schools are systems. They’re not made to pivot quickly,” Anderson said. “It’s like trying to turn a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean on a dime. It’s difficult.”