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Some U.S. schools switch to remote learning, delay start of classes as omicron surge disrupts return from winter break

Large school districts in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin are among those whose plans have changed abruptly.
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Schools across the country have been forced to adapt their plans to return from winter break this week as Covid cases continue to surge. Thousands of schools have temporarily switched to remote learning or delayed their returns. Meanwhile, in some districts that have returned to in-person learning amid staffing shortages, teachers are considering staying home.

Nationwide, more than 2,100 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.

Large school districts in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin are among those whose plans have been disrupted. In many cases, the plans changed abruptly over the weekend while parents and students were preparing for the return from winter break.

Detroit Public Schools announced on New Year’s Eve that all schools would be closed through at least Wednesday, citing the “city’s all-time high rate of infection at 36 percent.” The district said that it could not offer remote classes Monday because not all students have laptops and that it would announce plans for later in the week.

Atlanta Public Schools said Saturday that they had reversed their plan to start the year in person. Classes will be held virtually through Friday, the school district said.

Milwaukee Public Schools said Sunday that they would switch to virtual learning Tuesday because of “an influx of reported positive Covid-19 cases among district staff.” The district said its goal is to resume in-person learning Jan. 10.

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

“We will do everything to protect our children in this fight against this horrible virus and we will get back to in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Newark School Board President Dawn Haynes said in a statement last week.

One hurdle to returning to in-person learning appears to be Covid-related staffing shortages.

In Syracuse, New York, 263 staff members, about 10 percent, called out on Monday, said Nicole Capsello, the president of the Syracuse Teachers Association.

As a result, officials canceled school for the 20,000 students in the Syracuse City School District.

“We started the year in a staffing shortage,” Capsello said Monday. “When you don’t have coverage, you can’t bring kids in safely, so today the kids are home.” 

Still, she said, teachers do not see remote learning as a solution.

“The longer kids are out of school, the harder it is for them to acclimate when they come back in,” Capsello said. “They just want kids to come to school. They just want school to be normal, and it’s not happening right now.”

In some cities where schools did reopen for in-person learning, Monday was rocky.

At least 60,000 students and 12 percent of instructional staff members were absent in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade.

"Today was very chaotic," Hernandez-Mats said. The staffing shortage meant that some administrators had to step into classrooms and that some offices were closed altogether so staff members could help monitor students, she said.

"It’s not conducive for education," she said. "This is something that is going to obviously impact the health and well-being of not just students, but teachers in the quality of education."

In Chicago, the teachers union said school administrators and city leaders have not done enough to ensure that schools are safe.

“I am so pissed off that we have to continuously fight for the basic necessities, the basic mitigations,” Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said Monday morning at a news conference outside Park Manor Elementary School, where some teachers were working remotely after a coronavirus outbreak. 

The union's members will vote Tuesday on whether to disregard Chicago Public Schools' order to return to in-person teaching in favor of online learning.

The union has demanded that all students be tested before they return from the holiday break, which the district did not do.

Chicago Public Schools’ Covid-19 tracker showed that more than 35,800 tests were completed the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, but 24,989 of those tests were determined to be invalid, and 18 percent of the valid tests were positive.

Davis Gates said that “the overwhelming majority of those tests have been invalidated because of poor logistical planning” and “incompetence” by the mayor and her team. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot told CNBC on Monday that schools will stay open and that “fundamentally we know our schools are safe.” Lightfoot said children needed to be kept in school in person, saying remote learning earlier in the pandemic had a “devastating effect” on children and families.

Image: John Marro, New York return to school
John Marro, the dean of students at P.S. 347 in New York City, the American Sign Language and English Lower School, takes students' temperatures Monday as they arrive on the first day after the holiday break.Jennifer Peltz / AP

New York City Mayor Eric Adams echoed that sentiment Monday, saying, “We want to be extremely clear: The safest place for our children is a school building.”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, has said he called on Adams to begin the year remotely. At a news conference Monday, Mulgrew thanked teachers and staff members for going into school for students and parents and said the union was concerned about staffing shortages. He said the union was monitoring staffing, as well as making sure testing teams were “meeting the mandate that has been put before them.”

“Those are the things that are going to be important to keep our school system safe,” he said.