School & District Management

Omicron and Schools: Resources to Manage the Next COVID Wave

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Sarah D. Sparks — December 21, 2021 7 min read
City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
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The Omicron variant is sweeping the United States just as most school systems are heading into a weeklong (or more) winter break.

And while there’s still a lot we don’t know about Omicron, we do know it has surpassed Delta as the main source of new cases and it is the most contagious variant yet. It poses the greatest risk to people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. And though it is showing a heartier resistance to the vaccines than earlier variants, people who are fully vaccinated and who’ve also received a booster are less likely to be infected and experience serious illness.

“All of us have a date with Omicron,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Associated Press. “If you’re going to interact with society, if you’re going to have any type of life, Omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated.”

While we know a lot about what it takes to operate schools safely in a global pandemic, the unpredictable behavior of this virus is once again putting education leaders in the bullseye of some stressful and difficult decisions.

To help school administrators prepare for January when students and staff return from holiday break, we’ve put together a guide to key decisions around school operations, instruction, and the health and safety of students and staff, drawn from relevant reporting Education Week has done.

What is Omicron projected to do in the coming days and weeks?

From Dec. 11 to Dec. 18, Omicron rose from being responsible for less than 13 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the United States to more than 73 percent, rapidly overtaking the Delta variant. While its severity remains unclear, the most recent data from the Imperial College of London suggest it has caused about the same rates of illness and hospitalizations in England as Delta, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expect infections to jump by more than half by Christmas.

Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and professor of pediatric infectious disease at Northwestern University, said that the roughly 1,700 schools that the data tracker website Burbio says have either closed, started winter break early, or plan to delay reopening out of concerns over potential outbreak, could be a sign of things to come in January.

“There are some school districts that are doing virtual learning for part of January to get a better sense of where the pandemic is headed. It may be that if cases continue to surge that schools may have to go back to virtual learning,” she said.

The CDC’s recommended protections for schools haven’t changed, only become more urgent: universal masking and vaccination of children and adults, systemic testing and tracing infections, keeping at least 3 feet of distance indoors, practicing good hygiene among students, and sanitation and ventilation of buildings.

“None of this has changed, and it has been evident that schools that do not continue to practice these have had outbreaks,” Tan said. “Omicron is highly transmissible, so continuing to implement these protocols is now more important than ever for in-person learning.”

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Can test-to-stay programs help manage disruption to learning?

Yes. Earlier this fall, the use of test-to-stay programs in schools was gaining ground, though they were not in use on a broad scale. But schools that had adopted the approach were discovering they could safely keep nearly all exposed students and staff in school if they monitor them with frequent COVID tests, as Catherine Gewertz reported in October.

In the Marietta, Ga., school district, for example, staff or students who are exposed to COVID at school could take rapid-antigen tests each morning for seven days, at a drive-through testing station. Results are back within 30 minutes, and anyone with a negative result proceeds to school for the day. Superintendent Grant Rivera said it was a huge relief to see the numbers of quarantined staff and students drop significantly after the program was up and running.

The CDC just this month endorsed the test-to-stay practice as the newest tool in the arsenal in its guidance for schools on safely operating in the pandemic. Its recommendation came in the wake of a new study showing the strategy had kept infection rates down—and kids in school—in Los Angeles County and Lake County, Ill.

In addition to test-to-stay, some school districts have been using regular, widespread COVID testing to detect infections and drive down disruptions to learning. But low student participation rates have been a big challenge. That’s why some districts have gotten creative and are paying kids to participate, using gift cards, extra recess time, and cash to entice families to opt in.

In the last week or so, a few school districts adopted a new tactic: providing home testing kits to families to use on their children before returning to school after the holiday break. Chicago sent home 150,000 kits with students in communities at highest risk for COVID infections, and the Washington, D.C., school system will delay reopening by two days to give schools time to distribute home testing kits before resuming in-person learning.

Of course, those rapid-results home test kits are a scarce commodity, and some experts worry that if the supply chain remains a problem and the federal government doesn’t act to ease it, districts could be competing with one another.

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What if widescale quarantines become necessary?

In the opening weeks of the school year when Delta was surging, many schools were quarantining massive numbers of kids. It was, in some ways, as disruptive to learning as full shutdowns had been at the pandemic’s outset, with little to no structured teaching. But some districts did find ways to provide continuous instruction for students at home, reporter Sarah Schwartz found.

The Arlington Heights School District 25, in Illinois, set up a “quarantine academy” for the 2021-22 school year for students who test positive for COVID or who are identified as a close contact. Academies are organized by grade band, with one dedicated teacher each for early-childhood, grades K-2, grades 3-5, and grades 6-8.

Even if districts don’t have the staff to set up quarantine academies, there are still ways to improve the instructional experience for students at home, some experts told Education Week. One essential is clear communication—explaining exactly to teachers, students, and parents what will happen once students go into quarantine, and what options they will have to stay connected with the classroom.

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Should hybrid learning models be revived?

It’s a good idea to have them ready.

If there’s one consistent theme for education leaders in the pandemic, it’s that just when it seems that things are settling down and the threat of the virus is waning, a new wave of disruption hits. Case in point: Last summer, when planning in June and July leaned hard into a full-scale return to in-person learning. Not many districts opted to keep a hybrid model in the mix for the 2021-22 school year.

Of course, by August, the Delta variant had complicated fall re-opening, and in a handful of states, districts weren’t allowed to offer a remote option as widespread outbreaks of COVID in some school communities forced mass quarantines and disrupted learning for large numbers of students.

The breakneck speed of Omicron could put education leaders in the same position within a few weeks.

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How can administrators navigate all the deliberations and decisions that will need to be made?

Even with all the knowledge and experience administrators have gained since March 2020, making decisions about school operations amid another crush of COVID caseloads is incredibly hard.

But there are some tools to help, including breaking down what you’re actually experiencing: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or VUCA. EdWeek’s Kevin Bushweller explains VUCA and how leaders can understand and manage the hard scenarios that require clear thinking and decisionmaking.

Watch this video for an overview of VUCA:

This handy downloadable with a 4-step approach to complex problem-solving was used by leaders in the York County, Va., school district after a fire damaged an educational complex and to make decisions throughout the COVID pandemic.

And, if you haven’t done this already in the pandemic, reach out to doctors and other medical experts to help you understand what’s happening and advise you on decisionmaking.

Finally, don’t forget that your access to factual information, combined with your respectfully applied powers of persuasion, can help vaccine-wary parents make the decision to vaccinate their children and themselves.

Good luck. And stay healthy.

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Mark Lieberman, Reporter and Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer contributed to this article.

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