The Omicron surge threatens to upend any sense of peace in the U.S. education system.
After a holiday break that saw coronavirus cases spike unrelentingly, a small but growing list of public school districts — including Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland — moved temporarily to remote learning. On Monday night, Philadelphia’s school district announced that 81 schools, out of 216, would go remote.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children are enrolled in districts that have transitioned to remote learning.
And that number may grow. On Tuesday, members of the Chicago Teachers Union are preparing to vote on whether to refuse to report to schools starting the following day.
Districtwide closures, even those that last for a week or two, are a step backward after months in which classrooms largely remained open.
And although politicians, including Mayor Eric Adams of New York and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, promised to keep schools open, there were growing fears from parents and educators that more districts would soon turn to remote learning — even though in-school transmission of Covid has been limited.
Those decisions could radiate through the country, affecting child care, employment and any confidence that the pandemic’s viselike grip was loosening.
Some families were given just a few days or even hours of notice about school closures, leading to the all-too-familiar pandemic scramble to adjust child-care arrangements and work schedules. Atlanta Public Schools, for instance, announced on Saturday that classes would be online for the first week of January, just days after saying that classes would be held in person.
In Philadelphia, the school district emphasized its commitment to in-person learning throughout the day on Monday, as the local teachers union urged a seven-day pause on reopening, citing hundreds of positive cases among its 13,000 members. But at 7:30 p.m., the district announced that 77 schools, roughly a third of district-operated schools, would shift to virtual learning at least through Friday “due to Covid-related staffing challenges.”
At 11:30 p.m., the district added four more schools to the list.
“We spent all of the day and over the weekend, looking at the data coming in of teachers or staff, who were either waiting on test results or waiting to get tested,” Monica M. Lewis, a spokeswoman for the district, said on Tuesday, adding, “and it was just pretty clear that staff were either positive, or exposed and needed to be isolated and things of that nature, where we just did not have the sufficient staffing on hand at some of these schools, to have students come in person today.”
The academic, social and emotional toll of remote learning has been enormous, and well documented. And after a contentious first year of the pandemic, when the debate over opening classrooms was one of the most divisive in American life, politicians, labor leaders and teachers now overwhelmingly say they want school buildings to remain open.
On Tuesday, President Biden, citing the lack of evidence that Omicron more severely impacts children, called for schools to remain open. Local officials should use federal funds from the stimulus package passed last year to improve ventilation systems in schools and support classrooms large enough for social distancing, he said.
“We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Mr. Biden said. “We know that our kids can be safe when in school.”
A vast majority of the nation’s school districts — including most of the largest ones — appear to be operating relatively normally, in large part because of vaccines.
Still, the closures this week appeared to be concentrated in regions, such as the Northeast and upper Midwest, where Democratic Party policymakers and teachers’ unions have taken a more cautious approach to operating schools throughout the pandemic.
The nation is averaging more than 480,000 new cases a day, a record, though hospitalizations are growing much more slowly. Many principals have reported large numbers of staff members calling in sick, because they have Covid-19 or other illnesses, or are caring for sick family members or fearful of the conditions within school buildings.
Several of the shuttered districts serve predominantly Black, Hispanic and low-income students, raising concerns about the educational gaps that widened during previous phases of the pandemic.
And there are signs that some unions are becoming more resistant to in-person teaching. The Chicago Teachers Union, which has repeatedly clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, had demanded that every student be tested for the virus before returning from winter break, a step the district did not take.
The district, one of the largest in the country, instead gave tens of thousands of students optional take-home P.C.R. tests before winter break, which parents were supposed to bring to a FedEx drop box.
On Monday, it became clear that the testing effort had largely failed. Of 35,590 tests recorded by the district in the week ending Saturday, 24,843 had invalid results. Among those that did produce results, 18 percent were positive.