As a new school year approaches, COVID-19 infections are on the rise again, fueled by highly transmissible variants, filling families with dread. They fear the return of a pandemic scourge: epidemics that dismiss large numbers of teachers, close school buildings and force students to resume distance learning.
Some school systems across the country have moved to bolster staff to minimize disruption, but many are hoping for the best without doing much else differently than last year.
Even some of the districts that have seen the most disruption to in-person schooling amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant indicate little specific change in their prevention efforts.
Among them are schools in Baltimore County, where the number of days that individual schools in the district could not offer in-person learning totaled 159 in January, according to data from private research firm Burbio, which tracks more than 5,000 school districts nationwide. . District officials said they see no need to change protocols.
“We do not foresee any significant changes to our plan; we do not anticipate any significant disruptions,” said Charles Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools. “What we expect to see are waves of COVID in 2022 and 2023, and I’m sure there will be times when more people are out and there will be times when everything will be fine.”
Still, the district is prepared to move classes online if necessary.
“We certainly hope we don’t have to go to that extreme, but it’s an option if we have to consider it,” he said.
Teacher shortages remain a major concern, even bigger than COVID-19 itself, said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, an association of school superintendents.
“That’s the biggest concern – that they’ll have the staff to run all the classrooms, to run all the programs – which will only get worse if there’s a COVID outbreak,” he said.
Philadelphia schools illustrate how disruptive power surges can be. Starting in January, the virus pushed 114 city schools away for about eight days each, a total of 920 cumulative days of remote learning, more than any other district in Burbio’s data from January to June.
Amid the shortage of substitute teachers, schools have been forced to hire central office staff, combine classrooms or temporarily walk away, said district spokeswoman Marissa Orbanek.
The district has moved to a new recruitment agency and aims to fill 90% of replacement applications this year, Orbanek said. They also now have over 100 extra teachers, substitutes who show up at the same school every day in case of last-minute absences.
One parent, James Fogarty, watched his elementary school-age children resume online learning multiple times last year in Pittsburgh, a district that saw 46 disruptions in the second half of the year. last year. He hopes the district and communities can identify problems earlier and work on better solutions, such as identifying relief options for families.
“How can we build flexible systems to deal with shocks when they happen, other than just saying to families, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own and I hope you don’t get fired because you have to miss your shift.’work,'” said Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh, an organization that promotes equity in schools. “That’s not a satisfying answer for me.”
Schools can’t afford more disruption that distracts them from the essential work of helping children catch up, said Harvard education policy researcher Thomas Kane. Students in lower-income schools who were on remote learning for more than six months lost the equivalent of 22 weeks of learning, he said, while higher-income schools lost 13 weeks.
“We have seen a historic widening of achievement gaps between black and white, between Latinx and white students, between high and low poverty schools,” he said. “If we don’t work to close these gaps, they will become permanent and there will be huge consequences for children.”
Schools are hoping disruptions will be less likely as many districts have invested in better ventilation and vaccines are available for children as young as six months old. In addition to increasing the hiring of replacements, some of the hardest-hit districts last year made small changes to their protocols.
In Baltimore city schools, which are separate from the county school system, officials say expanded access to rapid tests will help schools stay open if a new variant emerges in the fall. The school previously relied on slower PCR testing, and when omicron cases spiked in January, the district’s testing regime couldn’t keep up. The move to faster testing helped the district avoid any school-wide shutdowns for the rest of the spring.
“We strongly believe that with the protocols we have in place, we will be able to continue to learn in person as the virus comes and goes and new variants arrive – pending an unforeseen variant that really changes the game. “, said Cleo Hirsch, director of the district’s COVID-19 response.
The Montgomery County School District in Maryland recorded 338 cumulative days of disrupted learning in January, the second highest of any district in Burbio data. District spokesman Christopher Cram said that’s partly because of a policy that automatically triggers blended or virtual learning if a school’s COVID case rate hits 5%. He is working on an updated safety plan for the new school year, he said.
In Columbus, Ohio, where the school system experienced 106 disruptions due to staff absences in early 2022, the district reported no planned changes to its policies to prepare for possible surges in the new year. “As we plan to open schools in August, the district will continue to follow its current mitigation protocols to help keep staff, students and families safe,” said spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant.
Lolita Augenstein, president of the Council of PTAs in Columbus, said she’s optimistic this year will be better. The district has focused on hiring teachers and substitutes, she said, and educators are being better trained to teach online if needed.
“We may not have it all figured out, and there are new variations and new concerns that have come up,” said Augenstein, whose daughter graduated from a district high school last year. “But children are resilient. … The families are trained to go back and forth between the remote control and the building.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Associated Press writers Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis contributed to this report. They are members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.