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Parents struggle as omicron disrupts back-to-school plans

"It takes a toll on me because I don’t get to sleep much," said one mom who works at night and oversees her son's remote learning during the day.

Amanda Kamara, 50, works nights as a store keeper at an airport and has been taking care of her mother, who recently returned home from a hospital stay.

For at least this week, she'll take on another job: overseeing virtual learning for her 13-year-old son, Kevon.

“It takes a toll on me because I don’t get to sleep much. I don’t have an alarm clock. It’s just go, go, go,” Kamara said, adding that she sometimes tries to take a five-minute nap.

“I just wish this thing would end,” she said.

Amanda Kamara on the right, her husband Keith Lewis and their 13-year-old son Kevon Kamara-Lewis.Amanda Kamara

Kamara is one of thousands of weary parents who have found themselves thrust back into the world of remote learning this week as omicron cases surge and schools across the country cancel school or pivot to remote learning. More than 4,700 K-12 schools will be closed for in-person learning for at least part of this week, according to Burbio, a company that has tracked school openings.

For Kamara, whose husband works the day shift at the same airport, it has been taxing trying to balance taking care of her mother and overseeing virtual learning for Kevon, an eighth grader at a Newark, New Jersey, charter school.

She also worries about the long-term effect on her son, who struggled emotionally during remote learning earlier in the pandemic but had been happier lately and recently made the school basketball team. 

“Yes it’s a concern, psychologically. It is a concern,” Kamara said.

She said she wished schools like hers had adopted a hybrid plan for returning from winter break, taking into account the needs of parents and providing testing for students to ensure that those who would return in person could do so without causing outbreaks.

Some students in New Jersey will spend half the month in remote learning. Newark’s public school district — the state’s largest, with about 40,000 students — expects to continue virtual learning through Jan. 14.

“Most of them don’t have the luxury of taking days off,” Kamara said. “Most of them don’t have the luxury of being home with their kids because they either work during the day, some of them are single parents.”

KIPP Newark, which operates 14 schools in the city including Kevon's school, KIPP TEAM Academy, said in a statement Wednesday that it “does not make the decision to transition to remote learning, even temporarily, lightly.”  

“We know that in-person instruction is the best way for students to learn and we are committed to providing in-person instruction as long as it is possible and safe to do so,” the statement said. “Given the sharp rise in positive cases reported within the Newark community and after discussions with local health authorities, we made the decision to pivot to remote learning following the winter break through January 7th. We will continue to consult with the local health department to adjust plans as needed.”

Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are breaking records across the country because of the omicron surge. New Jersey is among 16 states that set both a hospitalization record and a case record from Dec. 28 to Jan. 3, according to an analysis of NBC News’ case numbers and Department of Health and Human Services hospitalization data.

On Monday, the U.S. recorded 1 million new Covid cases, according to data compiled by NBC News.

In Chicago, officials for the nation’s third-largest school district announced that classes were canceled Wednesday and Thursday, after the local government and the teachers union clashed over safety precautions for returning to school. The union voted Tuesday night to switch to virtual learning because of the rise in Covid cases. It is not clear when children will return to classrooms.

Ryan Griffin, a parent who has two children in kindergarten and second grade, said remote learning “does not work.”

“We’re talking about putting kindergarten-aged children in front of screens for 7 1/2 hours a day,” Griffin said. “Frankly, there’s no amount of preparation — parents are not trained to do this.”

Mayra Miranda, a mother to a 12-year-old student in the Newark school district, said things were "a little insane" following the announcement that schools were going virtual. But Miranda has a 20-year-old daughter who can help watch her youngest while she works in person as an operations manager for a home fragrance company.

She said she believed it was better for children to stay home for two weeks and get tested than risk a major outbreak. 

“It’s better to come back home, get tested and make sure that everybody’s OK before we send all these children that were out and about in the world back,” Miranda, 37, said.

She said if schools had to go remote for longer or there were periodic disruptions to in-person learning, her situation would “become a struggle” as her older child is also in school.

“Hopefully the kids are able to go back to school. I know everybody’s split on that decision,” she said, adding that parents can have significant reasons for needing to send their kids to school or wanting to keep them at home.

“They don’t really have a choice,” she said.

In Portland, Oregon, Melissa Hendricks, 33, and her husband have had to balance working their full-time jobs from home and taking care of their 5-year-old as well as a 2-year-old. She said they are fortunate that her parents can help with their child care needs, but the situation has still been “really stressful.”

“It’s just straws piling up on the camel’s back,” she said. “At this point, it’s like, everything is overwhelming. There’s just one more thing to deal with.”

Her daughter's school, Le Monde French Immersion Public Charter School, delayed its opening for three days after winter break this week because it had “too many Covid-positive teachers and exposures to feel we could open safely” and not enough substitute teachers, Shouka Rezvani, president of Le Monde Immersion, said in a statement Wednesday. The school will open in person Thursday.

“Our hope is to remain in person, but we are simultaneously preparing in case we have to move to distance learning,” she said.

“It’s a difficult time for schools,” she added.

Hendricks said she has been “really impressed” with the way the school has observed safety precautions throughout the pandemic, but she marveled at the way the highly contagious omicron variant has created turmoil in her community, where masks and vaccines are popular.

“It’s just even in that context of a responsible school administration and a social culture that’s been very pro-masking here locally, and fully vaccinated staff, and one of the lowest Covid rates in the country — even still, our school is closed,” she said.

Kamara said she hopes students can return in person safely next week to her son’s school, KIPP TEAM Academy, but fears the impact omicron could have as the school year goes on.

“I’m not keeping my hopes up too high, because the way this omicron thing is going, it’s worrying,” she said.