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School districts push for in-person return after holiday break amid omicron wave

The Biden administration has also emphasized the importance of returning in person as it looks to prevent major disruptions with the rise of omicron.
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As another surge of Covid cases has swept the U.S., school districts around the country are pushing to keep classrooms open next week when students return from winter breaks.

Officials in the country’s largest school system, New York City’s, said Tuesday that they will double in-school testing of students even without symptoms or exposure, test both vaccinated and unvaccinated students and deploy millions of at-home rapid tests as the city and the state deal with record-shattering daily case counts because of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The city said that officials “strongly encourage” all eligible students to get vaccinated and that all students and staff members “should and are encouraged” to get tested before classes resume Monday. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, "By doubling Covid-19 testing in schools, getting our students vaccinated, and sending students, teachers and staff home with at-home test kits, we can keep everyone healthy and finish out this school year strong."

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who is scheduled to be sworn in Saturday, said: “The numbers speak for themselves — your kids are safer in school. Thanks to testing, vaccinations and at-home testing kits, we’ll keep it that way.” 

At-home testing kits will be given out to classrooms if students test positive, with students taking two tests over the course of seven days. Students who are asymptomatic and test negative can return to school the day after their first tests.

The strategy aligns with what the Biden administration announced this month in its "test to stay" approach, in which, instead of mandatory quarantines for unvaccinated students identified as close contacts of infected peers, students can remain in school if they test negative at least twice during the week after exposure. It is widely recognized that remote learning has hurt children socially, emotionally and academically.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday on MSNBC: “We need to make sure our students have access to in-person learning full time.

“I think they’ve suffered enough over the year and a half, and the good news is we know what to do. We have the tools to make sure vaccination is available to all students, testing protocols are being developed across the country,” he said. 

Public school students and staff members in Washington, D.C., will be required to provide negative Covid test results before they return to school Wednesday. Families must upload the negative test results online. 

If students show symptoms or are required to quarantine because they are unvaccinated and have identified close contacts who tested positive, they should be kept home regardless of the test results, the school district said. Students who test positive should reach out to their schools’ main offices and follow local isolation guidance.

The school district said it expects that some schools and classrooms will need to shift to virtual learning “throughout the semester, especially in the coming weeks.” When a school needs to pivot to situational learning, it will do so for up to 10 calendar days, the district said. 

The Washington Teachers’ Union said as many students and staff members as possible should be tested weekly with PCR tests with quick results. In a post on Twitter, the union called for using the test-to-stay method, providing KN95 masks for all, serving lunches outdoors and offering Covid sick leave.

Meanwhile, several school districts in New Jersey announced temporary returns to remote learning for the beginning of January. The Paterson Public School District, one of the largest school districts in the state, said last week that students would come back from winter break into remote learning from Jan. 4 through Jan. 18.

Some other districts in the state that are beginning the year with remote learning in early January are those in New Brunswick, Camden, Irvington and South Orange-Maplewood, as well as five districts in Hudson County.

Seattle Public Schools planned to reopen for in-person learning Monday while “also preparing for the possibility that some classrooms, and perhaps some schools, will have to go remote at some point in January.”

Families in the district were also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, get booster shots and have students tested before they return.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has said negative test results would not be required for students and staff members to return in person on Jan. 10, but baseline testing will be required, regardless of vaccination status, during the first week back from winter break, with testing until Jan. 28.

Georgia’s fifth-largest school district, Clayton County Public Schools, announced Thursday afternoon that because of rising Covid cases, the district will begin the semester with virtual learning from Jan. 5 to Jan. 7 and return in-person on Jan. 10.

“As we continue to monitor the surge in Covid-19 cases within our county, we understand that our schools and offices are microcosms of our respective communities,” Morcease J. Beasley, the superintendent of schools, said in a statement. “By beginning the second semester virtually, it allows employees and students, should they test positive, to complete recommended isolation and quarantine periods in compliance with the new CDC guidance issued.”