Instead of returning from winter break feeling refreshed and ready for the new semester, some teachers say on social media and in interviews that they are on edge about going back into the classroom amid the latest surge of COVID-19.
As COVID-19 cases rise due to the more-contagious Omicron variant, educators in a number of communities are bracing for another semester of staffing shortages, student absences, and potentially getting sick themselves.
The Omicron variant “has been a total game-changer,” said Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary art teacher in rural west Tennessee. “We’ve come back [after winter break] to something that’s completely different, and no one is prepared.”
Some districts, like the ones in Milwaukee, Wis., and Newark, N.J., have pivoted to remote instruction for one or two weeks after winter break, and some big districts—including the District of Columbia and Seattle—pushed their first days back to test students and staff and then reassess their learning plans.
But other districts, including large ones like New York City and small ones in rural areas, are continuing with business as usual, leaving some teachers feeling anxious about their own health and that of their students and family members.
Vaughn has been losing sleep over the possibility of contracting COVID-19 at school and bringing it home to her 4-month-old baby. The financial risks are adding to her stress: Vaughn depleted her sick days during her maternity leave this fall, and if she has to miss work because she has COVID, she won’t be paid, which could leave her struggling to put food on the table, she said.
“It’s a really overwhelming sense of paranoia and fear,” she said.
How Omicron could impact operations
On Jan. 2, the day before many schools started the new semester, the daily average of new COVID-19 cases nationally hit a record 405,000—a 200 percent increase from two weeks ago, according to the New York Times tracker. The national seven-day average of COVID-19-related hospitalizations reached 90,000.
While early data suggest the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease than the Delta variant, especially among vaccinated people, it’s much more contagious. Administrators are preparing for the possibility that a high volume of employee absences may leave them unable to staff classrooms or operate schools.
Andrea Castellano, a 3rd grade teacher in New York City, said that more than half of her class was absent on Monday, as were many of her colleagues.
“All that teachers could say today to each other is, ‘Why are we here?’” Castellano said. “There are limited numbers of students, limited numbers of staff. Teaching is not happening because you don’t want to provide new instruction to half your class. It’s not equitable. ... If we had the option to do remote, then real learning could happen.”
Yet closing schools comes with a cost, too. Remote learning has slowed many students’ academic progress, and left many children feeling isolated and depressed. Parent advocates and political leaders, including U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, have called for schools to remain open despite the surge.
“I know we’ve had an Omicron surge, but I still believe very firmly and very passionately not only as an educator, but as a parent, that our students belong in the classroom, and we can do it safely,” Cardona said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “We have better tools than we had in the past to get it done. We know what works, and I believe even with Omicron, our default should be in-person learning for all students across the country.”
Some teachers are in full agreement with the calls to keep schools open, and in some parts of the country, instruction has continued on as normal throughout most of the pandemic. Still, other teachers are frustrated, and Castellano said she feels like teachers’ voices are being left out of the conversation.
“It feels like walking into a trap that you know is a trap,” she said. “We’ve been told by the people who are in charge that schools are safe over and over again, yet we’re the ones who are actually in the schools.”
Castellano teaches in the Ocean Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is a community of mostly Black and Hispanic people. The rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths are higher there than Brooklyn or New York City’s overall rates, and Castellano said she’s worried that keeping schools open during this surge will further ravage the community.
“There’s a huge disconnect between the people making the decisions and the people bearing the brunt of those decisions,” she said. “They don’t see the reality of the policies being carried out.”
For instance, Castellano said, many teachers are working in classrooms without proper ventilation or even windows that open. And many of the mitigation strategies endorsed by Cardona, like universal masking and surveillance testing, aren’t in place in many schools. Four states—Florida, Oklahoma, Utah, and Texas—have prohibited districts from requiring masks, and in 30 other states, districts can choose for themselves whether to mandate students and staff to wear masks.
Vaughn’s district in Tennessee doesn’t require masks, although she wears one constantly. In the fall, she ate lunch in her classroom by herself, with the window open and two fans running. Now, she’s debating whether those precautions will be enough, or if she should eat in her car.
“I’m one of the only people I know who hasn’t had COVID,” she said. “Now, I’m just terrified that with Omicron,” that will change.
Relaxed quarantine guidelines have made some teachers uncomfortable
Adding to many teachers’ anxiety: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened its recommendations for the length of isolation and quarantine periods on Dec. 27. Now, people who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10, and then, if they have no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving, can resume normal activities wearing a mask for at least five more days.
People who were exposed to the virus can skip quarantine and wear a mask for 10 days instead if they have received a booster shot or received a vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna within six months or from Johnson & Johnson within two months. But people who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or got their vaccines more than two or six months ago—depending on whether they received a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer or Moderna—but have not gotten a booster shot must quarantine for five days and then wear masks in all settings for an additional five days.
The new guidance is complicated, and the implementation will vary from place to place.
“I’m a pretty educated person, and I’m confused about who quarantines, who needs to test, who needs to go back [to work],” said Crystal Watson, a math instructional coach in Cincinnati. “Before, you had to have a negative test to return, and you don’t anymore.”
Reducing the isolation and quarantine periods comes with some risks, public health experts say. And teachers who are parents have to navigate additional considerations. Children younger than 5 can’t be vaccinated, and children younger than 16 cannot get booster shots. (The FDA authorized booster shots for 12- to 15-year-olds on Monday, and CDC approval may come this week.)
Watson tested positive for COVID last week, and while her symptoms were mild, she had to isolate from her family, including her 10-year-old son. She’s now waiting to send him back to school until he can get tested, and she will be able to return to work on Thursday based on the new guidance.
“The worst thing is not COVID, it’s the after-effects of COVID, [including] the effect it has on your family because you have to isolate and quarantine,” Watson said. “I don’t think so many teachers are worried about death as they are long-term effects, mental health, and overall not wanting to bring that risk to their family.”
Some teachers’ unions are calling for a pause
Last school year, many teachers’ unions exerted pressure on districts to keep schools remote until safety measures were in place. Now, some powerful local unions are calling for temporary closures once again.
The Chicago Teachers Union has scheduled a vote for its members on Tuesday to ask if they support refusing to work in-person starting Wednesday. The union’s elected House of Delegates is expected to meet following the results of the vote to discuss the remote work action, according to WBEZ Chicago. Yet the school district must sanction any remote work, and district officials have said they intend to keep schools open for in-person learning.
CTU has been one of the most vocal local teachers’ unions throughout the pandemic, demanding strong mitigation measures. The union had previously threatened to refuse to teach in person over health and safety concerns last February, although it ultimately reached a deal with the district to avoid a strike.
“We want to be in our buildings educating our students, but we have a right to rigorous layered mitigation that ensures that we’re also not sacrificing our lives for our livelihoods,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement.
In Philadelphia, the city’s teachers’ union president has called for the school district to temporarily go remote until it can put in place mitigation measures, like providing N95 masks for all students and staff, implementing weekly COVID-19 tests for students, and ensuring proper ventilation in classrooms.
“We don’t want schools to become a spreader environment,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told WHYY News, the local public radio station. “What I ask for is a pause for a week so that the district will be given the time … to be able to get all of the strategies that the doctors are saying are necessary in place, so that when children and staff return to the buildings that they are going to be as safe as they possibly can be.”
However, the Philadelphia school district was still planning to reopen schools in person on Tuesday, a spokesperson said.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview Monday that while it’s important for schools to remain open in person for children’s sake, district leaders need to have mitigation measures in place, including regular testing. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hasn’t listened to the union’s demands for safety precautions, she said, which has forced union leaders’ hands: “What position are they left with?”
But even if safety measures are in place, there will likely be temporary school closures in the next few weeks due to high volumes of staff absences, she said. And in the meantime, she added, there’s a lot of anxiety among teachers.
“People can be talking about ‘in school, not in school,’ but teachers showed up all across the nation today,” Weingarten said. “They’re anxious, and they’re scared, and they’re working under really tough conditions.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as For Anxious Teachers, Omicron ‘Feels Like Walking Into a Trap’