For thousands of American schools, the new year marks a return to virtual education due to the Omicron variant, which affects students and teachers alike. But these actions make some parents anxious about their children’s education and mental health.
The shutdowns — which account for about 4% of schools nationwide — are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, where school districts grapple with massive numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Teachers’ unions have taken a more cautious approach since the start of the pandemic, sometimes leading to confrontations with local authorities.
In Chicago, the country’s third-largest city, an estimated 340,000 public school students have been forced to stay home as talks between the mayor and the local union, which are calling for more testing and a higher vaccination rate, have stalled.
Experts, and families themselves, are divided over whether or not virtual education is because effective vaccines are widely available to all children ages 5 and older.
Stephen Bussack, a counselor in Washington, believes that his children, who attend one of the largest public schools in the US capital, fell behind socially and educationally when they had to take their distance courses.
Boussac told AFP last year that his 17-year-old son “felt depressed and socially isolated”. “He’s a very social kid and misses his friends,” he says, adding that he doesn’t want this to happen again.
“I think closing schools in 2022, two years after the outbreak of the pandemic, should be seen as a failure,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins, told AFP.
He added that even before vaccinations, research showed that schools were not important places for the spread of the virus and could be safe with certain measures (social distancing, masks, ventilation…).
On the flip side, the rate of childhood infection associated with Omicron is unprecedented – and while the majority of cases are mild, the large number of them automatically cause a record number of pediatric hospitalizations.
“I don’t think anyone is calling for mass closures, I think it’s a question of prime-time targeted closures,” Boston pediatrician Dan Summers told AFP.
He said that while children are less likely to develop severe illness than older children, they can still pass viruses on to those at risk at a time when intensive care units are already under stress.
According to figures compiled by Burbio research group, more than 4,500 schools this week have either entered remote learning, or closed for at least one day — the highest level of disruption in months.
On Wednesday, the White House’s coordinator for epidemic control, Jeff Zents, said 96% of schools are open, adding that keeping them open remains a priority for Joe Biden.
This at times put the president at odds with some Democratic voters, who tend to be more cautious about COVID-19 than Republican supporters.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union, which has 25,000 members, has defied city officials and refused to return to class until their demands are met or issues dismissed.
“The absolute thing not to do today is give up on science and its data, which tells us unequivocally that our schools are the best place for our students,” Mayor Laurie Lightfoot told CNN Thursday.
But not all parents think that the immediate reopening of schools is vital.
Ann Claire Thomassen, a web designer who lives in Rockville, Maryland, told AFP that the private school for her 10-year-old daughter Anna went into virtual learning this week after testing students and teachers and found a high rate of positivity.
The school has conducted these tests since September, and said “I trust them with the decisions they make,” hoping to reopen the school soon.
“I must admit, my daughter is not very happy to be at a distance, because she is slower,” she added. Plus, “it brings her back to her emotions from last year.”
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