Schools and COVID-19: Are Virtual Classes Returning?

The astronomical increase in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving, and the advancement of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, are causing US school systems to discuss what to do to mitigate transmission.

Will you be returning to classes in person after the Holiday break? Or will there be virtual classes? Some districts have already decided.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the school system did not make the same mistake it did in the past: wait and see what happens. Due to a rapid increase in COVID cases in schools, the authorities announced on Friday the 17th that all classes would go virtual from December 20 to January 14, 2022 (with the cut for the holiday recess).

In neighboring Montgomery County, the School Board said it will await the state’s order if schools need to be closed, although many schools in this county have already had to suspend winter sports season activities and events because of the increase in COVID cases. The county follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for contact tracing, testing and quarantine.

Several school districts across the country decided to distribute kits to test for COVID at home between students and staff, with the goal of mitigating the return of sick people to the classroom in January. Among them, the public schools of Chicago, several cities in Massachusetts and the United School District of San Diego, in California.

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Also in California, Marin County has used home tests this entire school year.

The California Department of Public Health said each student and staff will receive a COVID-19 test kit with instructions in English and Spanish on how to use it and how, eventually, to ask for help.

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker identified 102 areas with the highest circulation of the coronavirus and it is there where deliveries of home kits will be most concentrated.

Although there is controversy about the efficacy of home tests vs PCRs administered in medical settings or in community health centers, health authorities say that home tests fulfill the function of detecting whether or not a person is contagious.

The problem that begins to emerge with home tests is that they are already in short supply: they are sold out as soon as pharmacies put them on the shelves.

Some school systems that have not yet mandated vaccination of their staff are taking a step forward. For example, Detroit issued an order for all teachers and school staff to be fully vaccinated by February.

In states like Texas and Florida, school districts are monitoring the progress of omicron, but have not yet taken concrete action.

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Several universities such as Massachusetts, New Mexico and Notredame have issued the order that all students have their booster shots. Cornell University will have all of its end-of-year exams virtually.

What the start of 2022 brings for schools remains to be seen. Many do not rule out the return, at least temporarily, to virtual education. The debate is open and the epidemic will rule. Early actions, experts say, are critical to mitigating epidemiological and educational damage.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized 14 rapid over-the-counter COVID-19 tests.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said rapid tests serve to keep students in schools safely, even if they have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

While the recommendations may change as cases increase, for now, the CDC says:

  • Students benefit from face-to-face teaching.
  • Vaccination is the main public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools maintain face-to-face teaching and extracurricular and athletic activities.
  • Everyone must wear masks indoors, everyone, staff members, teachers, and school visitors in grades K-12, regardless of their immunization status.
  • It is recommended that schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce the risk of transmission.
  • It is extremely important to implement several additional preventive strategies, such as screening tests for evaluation purposes.
  • Conducting screening tests, ventilation, hand washing and respiratory hygiene protocol, staying home if ill and getting screened, conducting contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to ensure safety in schools.
  • Students, teachers, and staff members should stay home if they have signs of an infectious disease, in addition to seeing their healthcare provider for screening and necessary care.
  • Different localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, conducting evaluation tests, and the appearance of outbreaks when making decisions about the level of prevention strategies.
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