Student Well-Being

Omicron or No, Schools Should Prepare for a Pandemic Winter

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 01, 2021 4 min read
Leader holding telescope and looking ahead while on top of ladder leaning on a large virus pathogen
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have voiced concern over a new strain of COVID-19, dubbed Omicron, that is now found in the United States and 23 other countries. Yet the playbook for school and district leaders to prevent a new wave of the pandemic is unlikely to change.

“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, in a briefing on the new variant Wednesday. “But if countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do to stop transmission of [the Delta variant], they wouldn’t stop Omicron either,” he said, adding that “a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage and very low testing is a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants.”

While the first U.S. cases of Omicron were identified on Wednesday, the highly contagious Delta variant still accounts for virtually all new coronavirus cases in the United States, with infection rates rising again among children younger than 18 in the first half of November, after more than two months of declining cases among young people.

What is Omicron?

Formally known as B.1.1.529, the Omicron strain of SARS-COV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) was first identified following a spike in coronavirus cases in South Africa, and now has caused cases in at least 23 countries.

Omicron shows significant mutations from other strains of the virus, including some that may lead to more “breakthrough” infections among those who have already had the disease or were vaccinated against it. The CDC and WHO consider the strain a “variant of concern,” because of Omicron’s potential to be more contagious than Delta and respond less to vaccines and some treatments. However, WHO epidemiologists are still studying whether Omicron spreads more easily from person to person or causes more-severe cases than other strains.

“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of other variants,” a WHO spokeswoman told Education Week. “Initially reported infections were among university studies—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron [variant] will take days to several weeks.”

In the meantime, both the WHO and CDC advised schools to continue to use existing mitigation strategies—such as indoor masking, physical distancing, and improved ventilation—while also encouraging students and staff to get vaccinated.

Should schools brace for another pandemic wave?

Probably, experts say, but not necessarily because of Omicron. Just as last winter saw a significant third wave, COVID-19 cases have begun to rise again in some areas, particularly as temperatures drop and more activities move indoors.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which models potential trajectories for the pandemic, reported people are already becoming more mobile during the holiday season, and predicted fewer people will wear masks and keep physically distanced over the next several months. The group estimates it would take 95 percent of the United States regularly wearing masks in public—regardless of vaccination status—to fully prevent another wave of the pandemic, and if Americans stop wearing masks entirely when they become vaccinated, infection rates would double by the end of January.

More than half of adolescents ages 12 to 17 now have been fully vaccinated, the CDC reports, but less than 15 percent of children ages 5 to 11 have had at least one dose, and there has been no vaccine yet approved for those under 5. Those coverage rates are nowhere near high enough to provide herd protection for those unable to receive a vaccination, or to prevent individual outbreaks of the pandemic.

A new, prepublished study (one that has been released through a medical wire but has not yet gone through formal peer review and journal publication) led by researchers at Harvard University’s Center for Health Decision Science, suggests that as the virus evolves, school and district leaders need to develop plans that allow them to rapidly adjust their masking, distancing, and instructional policies to changes in community infection and vaccination rates. In a school where at least half of students had full immunization, the researchers predicted school leaders could lift masking requirements without increasing secondary school infections as long as the community infection rate stayed below four new cases per day for every 100,000 people, and the school took other mitigation measures, such as improving ventilation and keeping students physically separated. At the moment, however, nearly all U.S. communities remain above that rate.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Q&A Communications Expert Explains: How to Talk to Parents About COVID Vaccination
A Johns Hopkins University expert discusses a new training project on how to communicate about the sensitive issue.
7 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says New Research Shows How Bad the Pandemic Has Been for Student Mental Health
Researchers say the road to recovery will be a long one.
4 min read
2016 Opinion ELL 840293800
E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor Policymakers Must Prioritize SEL
SEL is important both to help students overcome challenges caused by the pandemic and to build resilience in the longterm, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being From Our Research Center COVID Precautions in the Cafeteria? 1 in 5 Educators Say Schools 'Not Doing Anything'
An EdWeek Research Center survey finds wide variation in what schools are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during mealtimes.
5 min read
Elementary school girl in school cafeteria.
SDI Productions/E+