K-12 Schools Press to Reopen as Omicron Variant Surges - The Wall Street Journal

K-12 schools around the country are pressing forward with tentative plans to reopen after the holiday break in the midst of a surge in Covid-19 cases. Their biggest challenge: getting enough rapid tests to be able to step up or launch "test-to-stay" strategies.

School-district superintendents are weighing how—and when—to reopen, a decision driven partly by the availability of tests. The superintendents have different appetites for risk, and the level of teacher enthusiasm for returning to the classroom varies. Regional surges in pediatric hospitalizations for Covid-19 are contributing to differences across the country.

In contrast to 2020, there is much broader support to continue school in-person following the grim record of remote teaching on student mental health and learning loss.

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"The science is clear. Schools need to be open," then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press briefing last week. "Everyone talks about the needs of our kids. Their health needs, physical health, mental health, nutrition needs, their social development. These are academic needs, schools need to be open."

In addition to vaccines, a strategy called test-to-stay is fueling the hopes of educators that the remainder of this school year will be smoother than last. Instead of quarantining, students exposed to Covid-19 are tested regularly and can remain in school if they are negative. The policy is growing in popularity and has been hailed as effective by researchers.

Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are extending winter break by two days to test staff and students before reopening buildings Jan. 5. Chicago is recommending that parents administer rapid tests to their children before returning to school. Nearly 2,200 schools have announced that they will be closed starting Monday, according to Burbio, a Pelham, N.Y., data company that is monitoring K-12 school closures in 5,000 districts across the country.

Other systems, such as Seattle Public Schools, are pushing ahead and pledging to stay flexible. Last week the district announced that it had received 60,000 tests. So it canceled classes on Monday to test teachers. Classes will resume Tuesday.

"We recognize students learn best with teachers in the classroom and are planning to keep students and staff in schools," the district said on its website. "SPS is positioned, however, to transition classrooms (or schools) to remote instruction, if necessary, at some point in January."

To help combat Omicron, the Biden administration is opening up more Covid-19 testing sites and delivering 500 million tests to Americans. WSJ's Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a problem in the U.S., two years into the pandemic. Photo illustration: David Fang

President Biden has pledged to make 500 million Covid-19 tests available to the public free of charge through a website to be launched in January. The timing of the delivery of those tests remains in question. Last week Mr. Biden told a meeting of governors that the federal government hasn't moved fast enough.

Some states' plans have been thwarted by supply-chain disruptions.

Last week Massachusetts education officials pledged to deliver 200,000 at-home rapid antigen Covid-19 tests to school districts across the state to teachers and staff so they can test themselves before returning to school after break. While supply-chain problems delayed delivery of tests, schools were still scheduled to open.

A similar delay happened in Connecticut after Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, announced that the state would distribute three million tests to the public. Then those tests failed to arrive on time.

"I think we got ahead of ourselves," Mr. Lamont told reporters last week. Some of the tests arrived Friday, Mr. Lamont tweeted.

The latest Covid-19 surge, fueled by the Omicron variant, is so far concentrated in the Northeast. Most concerning to schools is an uptick in pediatric hospital admissions for Covid-19. In New York City, those cases were up fourfold in December. In Washington, D.C., they doubled. Nationwide they are up 66% over the past week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those regional surges help explain why hundreds of districts have announced that they will conduct classes remotely through the middle of the month. In Mount Vernon, N.Y., Kenneth R. Hamilton, superintendent of schools, decided to halt classroom instruction through Jan. 18 after seeing Broadway cancel performances and professional sports leagues postpone some games.

Students in New York City late last month before schools closed for the holiday break. Photo: Brittainy Newman/Associated Press

"I have been very reluctant to close schools, but given the current trends in Covid cases, it would be risky not to do so," wrote Dr. Hamilton before break on the school's website. "Schools will reopen on Tuesday, January 18th, 2022."

In a sign that the pandemic is heading into a new endemic chapter, Neshaminy School District, outside of Philadelphia, will began classes immediately after winter break but will discontinue contact tracing "because it's logistically impossible to do so with any reasonable expectation of validity, reliability or fidelity," Superintendent of Schools Rob McGee wrote on the district website. "I am fairly certain there is something in the following that will upset just about everyone on the Covid Continuum regardless of which side you lean," Dr. McGee said.

Last week the CDC cut the recommended number of days people isolate after being infected with Covid-19 to five days from 10. Asymptomatic people may leave isolation after five days and should wear masks around other people for five more days, the CDC said.

That shift comports with the test-to-stay model endorsed by the CDC in December and has been rolled out in states including Massachusetts and California. But only 13 of the nation's largest 100 districts had a test-to-stay policy in place before schools stopped for break, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based in Seattle that tracks school responses to Covid-19.

The move to press ahead with in-person schooling in the U.S. largely tracks with what others have done globally.

Europe started experiencing a surge in the Omicron variant several weeks ago. Authorities in Germany and Austria pledged to keep schools open despite the surge in infections, after facing criticism from experts and parents for closures during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

The British government says keeping classrooms open is a priority and is planning for schools to resume normal operation in January. Mass testing, air purifiers and ex-teachers are being deployed to ensure that education isn't compromised by the rapid spread of Omicron in the country.

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

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