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
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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.

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