As states scramble to contain a fresh surge of COVID-19 cases that may only worsen with the holiday season and the emergence of the Omicron variant, schools are once again shutting their doors to curtail the spread of the deadly disease.
In Maryland, at least three schools announced they were closing their doors early after reporting a COVID-19 outbreak, while several schools in the District of Columbia area have also moved to online learning to contain an ongoing outbreak. A few states away, in New York City, the Department of Education has shuttered over 800 classrooms amid a mass surge of COVID-19 cases in the area.
School officials in Missouri have also been forced to start the holiday season early, a grim combination of both COVID-19 exposures and an ongoing battle with the state’s attorney general over pandemic mitigation measures.
“It’s already ramping back up,” Michael Allgood, a high-school teacher in Hannibal, Missouri, told The Daily Beast. “I can easily teach virtually through Google meets and Zoom though, so it is what it is.”
The stated reason for the mass closures, which echo waves of school closures earlier in the pandemic, vary by jurisdiction. And schools closed early and often this same academic year in states like Mississippi, where vaccination rates are low.
But even as the country boasts an approximately 60 percent vaccination rate—by the old standard of two doses of the MRNA vaccines, at least—the emergence of the Omicron variant has local and federal officials worried about a possible tsunami of cases nationwide.
The World Health Organization this week admitted that while Omicron, first detected in South Africa, was spreading faster than its variant predecessors, it does not appear, with what limited data is available, to be producing as many severe cases. Dr. Anthony Fauci also noted to CNN this week that the next COVID wave can still be mitigated by inoculations.
“We are already in a Delta surge. I mean, the cases are going up,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said of the variant that remains dominant, at least for now, in the United States. “And then you have, looking over your shoulder, the Omicron variant, which we know from what’s going on in South Africa and in the U.K., is a highly transmissible virus.”
In New York City, however, at least one school has also totally closed its doors, according to city data. The move comes as local education officials reported 546 new cases in the school system on Thursday.
“In some areas like NYC, there is evidence of increasing Omicron present at higher percentages. But Delta is still a major force nationally,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a specialist in infectious diseases, told The Daily Beast.
Adalja added that some schools have “policies in place for quarantine with exposure and case thresholds” that could also trigger closures. In Missouri, closures in at least two schools have also been attributed to staffing shortages.
In Nodaway County, which has one of the highest infection states in the state, the school board unanimously voted this week to cancel school though the holiday break in order to band-aid the problem of having no teachers. The Polo School District also agreed to start their break on Thursday “due to the large capacity of illness that our elementary and lower middle school is experiencing,” the school said.
The closure for the Caldwell County school came one day after Polo Superintendent Kyle Ross revealed in a letter to parents that due to a court ruling, the local health department no longer had to require students exposed to COVID-19 to stay home from school.
“The pandemic has harmed children not because of the virus, but because of what adults have done to them,” Adalja added.
In the nation’s capital, politics does not seem to have played as large a role in the closures of schools so much as sheer pandemic pain.
Whittier Elementary, a public school in Northwest D.C., announced on Wednesday it would shift to online learning for a week after a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. The decision to close ahead of the winter break, with plans to resume classes on Jan. 3, came after at least 14 cases were reported at the school.
“The decision to shift the entire school to virtual instruction for the next week did not come lightly,” the school’s Principal Tiffany Johnson said in a letter to parents. “However, with many students required to quarantine and limited staffing availability, virtual learning will allow all students to end the calendar year strong.”
Next-door, in Maryland, at least three schools have also begun closures due to COVID-19 cases. As the Baltimore Sun reported, 15 of 24 public-school in Maryland are experiencing a spike in cases after the state reported its highest academic positivity surge this year. The move has also prompted others to cancel extracurriculars, athletic activities, or else move to a partially-virtual system.
The trio of schools closing, all in Prince George’s County, said they would move to virtual learning after “this week, we saw a high of 155 cases reported in a single day,” the district’s CEO explained in a Wednesday letter.
“The recent surge of cases locally, nationally, and statewide is beginning to impact our ability to deliver instruction at various schools, leading to entire grades in quarantine and some school buildings to close,” Dr. Monica Goldson added in the letter.
Georgetown Preparatory School, a private school in Montgomery County, announced last week that it, too, would transition to virtual learning before its two-week holiday break after 30 students tested positive for the deadly disease.
In Olney, Maryland, Our Lady of Good Counsel High School also announced it would end the semester early after at least 21 confirmed cases. The school’s president said in a letter to parents that the “significant increase” has also prompted the Catholic institution to delay midterm exams, which were set to begin on Wednesday, until after the new year.
For Genevieve Kanter, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, the decision for some schools to close their doors early might be just a matter of timing.
“Since we are so close to winter break anyway, districts may be deciding that closing a week or two ahead of schedule won’t have too many other knock-on effects for parents and families,” Kanter told The Daily Beast. “Schools generally have thresholds based on either school-based cases and positive tests or community COVID rates for triggering classroom or school-based closures, and it looks like they are hitting those thresholds.”
Kanter, however, added that these closures stem from a combination of things, including “the greater transmissibility of Omicron, the imperfect protection conferred by vaccination in the face of Omicron, the cold weather forcing people to stay indoors in spaces that are not well ventilated, and increased levels of noncompliance with regard to proper mask-wearing and eating and drinking because people are simply growing tired of the additional precautions they’re asked to take.”
So even if there are early indicators that deaths will not reach the same disastrous levels they did a year ago thanks to vaccines, parents, teachers, and teachers might be forgiven for experiencing a nightmarish sense of deja vu.