Jan 3, 2022 - Health

Back to school: Omicron edition

Illustration of an open backpack with a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in it. 
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Months after Delta threatened the fall back-to-school ritual, COVID-19 is again complicating kids' return to the classroom.

Why it matters: While government officials worked to convince school administrators and parents over the last several days that kids could safely get back to in-person learning after the holidays, the reality on the ground amid the spread of Omicron is much more complicated.

What they're saying: "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 that we can do it safely," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

  • NIAID director Anthony Fauci pointed to vaccination rates among teachers, growing vaccinations among kids and increased testing.
  • "I think all those things put together, it's safe enough to get those kids back to school, balanced against the deleterious effects of keeping them out," Fauci told ABC News' "This Week."

Yes, but: While many of the nation's school districts are moving ahead with in-person classes, more than 2,100 schools are expected to be closed or open only for remote instruction this week, according to the school tracking website Burbio.

  • Major school districts, such as those in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, extended their holiday break by a few days to allow time to test students and teachers.
  • Smaller districts around the country, including in Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey, are opting for remote learning for at least the first week back from the holiday break.

Among the concerns, Omicron numbers are surging and hospitals are already filling up or overwhelmed, fueling concerns that kids' return to schools could further drive up case rates.

Some good news: Early data indicates Omicron may not cause much severe illness.

  • "Given the large number of cases, we have not seen a concomitant increase in the relative percentage of hospitalizations," Fauci told ABC News.
  • "But, again, hospitalizations are often late, lagging indicators," he warned.

The bottom line: As the U.S. gets back to business and school in the new year, Americans will be adjusting to increased testing, changing isolation protocols, and evolving views on the importance of mask quality.

  • Amid the spread of a highly transmissible variant, the next few weeks could prove to be especially challenging.
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