Outside the U.S., the COVID school debate is (mostly) settled—even as Omicron surges

January 9, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

Omicron is wreaking chaos in American schools.

In Chicago, public schools have been closed since Wednesday amid a battle over COVID-19 protocols between the teachers union, which is pushing a transition to remote learning, and the city’s government, which is demanding a return to in-person classes.

Chicago is not alone. In total, 4,500 schools across the U.S. closed for at least one day last week due to Omicron, which is quickly outpacing Delta as a highly transmissible but likely less severe strain of COVID-19. The virus itself is one problem. The absences it’s causing among teachers and administrators is another. Some schools are closing because too many teachers are out sick, straining staffing that was already at record lows two years into the pandemic.

American schools are closing despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s insistence that they stay open.

“We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Biden said in a press conference last week. “We know that our kids can be safe when in school…That’s why I believe schools should remain open.”

The debate over whether COVID outbreaks should shut schools is dividing the country. Some parents are storming school board meetings to demand that schools stay open while proponents of closures complain that it’s impossible to open schools safely amid a record surge of cases. 

Those in favor of closing schools have cited the record number of kids being hospitalized amid the U.S.’s current Omicron wave and are concerned that children may be vulnerable to long COVID, a condition in which COVID-19 symptoms persist for weeks or months beyond an initial diagnosis. 

But experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert, say the hospitalization numbers may be inflated due to children being hospitalized for non-COVID reasons but testing positive for asymptomatic infections once they are admitted. 

Parents, teachers, and administrators advocating for a return to remote learning argue that opening schools will worsen existing community outbreaks. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that in-person schooling does not necessarily correlate with higher hospitalization rates in the community, and prevention strategies like improving ventilation can help reduce transmission in schools. 

Beyond immediate safety risks, experts say that the long-term mental health and educational consequences of closing schools must also be considered. “The cost to these children [of missing in-person learning] is astronomical. It’s really going to change their lives…for decades to come,” says Karen Grepin, a health policy expert at Hong Kong University.

Hundreds Of BPS Staff Out Sick During Covid Surge
Boston School Superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius helped dismiss children at the Nathan Hale Elementary School in Boston after substitute teaching there on Jan. 5, 2022.
Suzanne Kreiter—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Even in a deeply partisan country that’s at odds on most political and social matters—especially related to COVID—the school debate in the U.S. stands out for its divisiveness. A Pew Research poll in August at the height of a surge in Delta—there has not been an equivalent poll during the Omicron outbreak—showed an almost even split between those wanting to keep schools open versus closed.

But outside the U.S., the debate over closing schools due to COVID outbreaks is far more settled, even in the face of Omicron. Up until now, Europe largely has been determined to keep kids in school no matter what. Students in Sweden and Finland, for example, have not missed any in-person schooling at all in the past two years. With a few exceptions, Europe is still committed to keeping schools open, even as Omicron pushes case levels to new highs. Meanwhile, in Asia’s current and former “COVID-zero” countries, governments that were quick to close schools in the past are newly committed to keeping them open, making the U.S.’s new round of school closures somewhat of an outlier two years into the pandemic.

Open then; open now

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson under strong pressure from the libertarian wing of his Conservative Party, the British government is generally keen to avoid reimposing any major COVID restrictions, despite the country being hammered by the Omicron wave.

“We must do everything we can, everything in our power to keep all education and childcare settings open and teaching in-person,” U.K. Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi told lawmakers last week. As Zahawi noted, the government will until mid-February continue sending financial support to schools, so they can cope with “staffing challenges.” It is also urging retired teachers to re-enter the profession.

However, the immediate reality is bleak. Spring term began last week and, on Friday, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said over a quarter of its members reported that more than 10% of their teaching staff were absent on the first day. Half were using substitute teachers to cover the gaps, but more than a third couldn’t find enough. Some schools have already had to fall back to partial closures.

“Given that this is a snapshot of just the first day of term, this is a very worrying picture,” said NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman in a statement. “Infection rates—and therefore absence due to illness—could very likely rise as the term progresses…Many schools are teetering on the edge and the next few weeks at least will undoubtedly continue to be an incredibly challenging time.”

In Germany, where the federal COVID state of emergency was allowed to expire in November, the kinds of widespread school closures seen earlier in the pandemic, which kept kids home through to May 2021, are no longer possible. Each of Germany’s 16 states is now left to sort out its own school situation. Some, such as Thuringia, are leaving it up to the schools themselves to decide how to proceed. Others are aiming for a more uniform approach, with Saxony-Anhalt, for example, mandating in-class attendance.

At an urgently-convened meeting last week, state education ministers agreed closures should only be countenanced “when all other options have been exhausted.” They said keeping kids in school was essential not only for the children, but also for other critical infrastructures—a point they used to argue for a shorter quarantine time for teachers.

“It is crucial that in-person teaching maintains the highest priority, even in the context of Omicron,” Karin Prien, leader of the Conference of Education Ministers, told Zeit after the meeting, citing expert warnings about psychosocial damage. (By one estimate, 30% of German children have developed symptoms of mental illness during the pandemic.)

Germany does not keep a centralized count of school closures, but the weekly situation reports from the Robert Koch Institute—the country’s top epidemiology authority—provide some insight into COVID outbreaks at schools. The most recent, issued Thursday, said there had been 663 reported outbreaks in the previous four weeks, a far cry from the 1,536 outbreaks recorded over the equivalent period a month before. This was partly due to the holiday season, and the institute warned of a possible increase in outbreak frequency now that holidays are over.

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A student at Park Lane Academy in northwest England takes a COVID lateral flow test that’s part of a campaign to test every pupil in the school on the first day of term on Jan. 4, 2022.
Oli Scarff—AFP/Getty Images

The debate over COVID-era schooling is not just about keeping kids in or out of the classroom; it’s also about making the classroom safer. In France, whose education system is far more centralized than Germany’s, health experts and teachers have been begging the government to institute more protections in schools. A couple weeks ago, dozens of health experts wrote to Health Minister Olivier Véran to warn that Omicron was circulating more in schools than in the wider community, and to call for the postponement of the new school year.

That didn’t happen, and a new government protocol issued last weekend failed to mandate high-quality masks as many had demanded. The French government’s scientific advisers now expect at least a third of teachers to be off work by the end of this month, thanks to Omicron. Meanwhile, on Thursday, France’s public health authority noted that the new variant’s advance was increasingly putting young people in hospital, especially those age 9 or younger.

Back open—for good?

Before South Africa spotted the highly-mutated Omicron variant in November, Asia’s COVID-19 case rates had fallen dramatically in the final months of 2021, pushing countries across the region to pursue a complete re-opening of in-person classes. Omicron is now fueling a new surge of infections, but amid the explosion of cases, places that were once quick to close schools are now more committed to keeping them open. 

Hong Kong, one of the last places in the world to continue pursuing a COVID zero strategy that seeks to eliminate all cases, has so far dodged a widespread Omicron outbreak, but the city is dealing with its biggest scare in months. In late December, the virus managed to slip into the city via airline pilots who breached quarantine rules, prompting the city to close bars, gyms, and entertainment venues to stem a potential outbreak.

Grepin says that even in COVID-paranoid Hong Kong, there’s growing consensus that schools must stay open. In the past, in-person learning was one of the first things to go when COVID cases inched upward. Now, they seem to be the last. When the government announced new lockdown measures last week, it stopped short of closing schools.

“We’re seeing a new focus and prioritization in terms of trying to keep schools open here,” Grepin says. That’s not to say the debate is fully settled. This week, Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading infectious disease expert in the city, called for the government to temporarily close schools due to Omicron’s presence in the city. And Grepin says that if Hong Kong experiences a widespread outbreak, the government may decide to close schools.

“The idea [from the Hong Kong government] is we have to get back to zero [COVID cases] at all costs,” even if that may come at the expense of in-person classes, she says. 

Australia previously had one of the strictest COVID-zero policies in the world, and students in cities like Melbourne stayed at home more during 2020 and 2021 than students from almost any other country. But Australia transitioned from “COVID zero” to living with the virus last year and now appears intent on fully opening schools when a new semester starts Monday, even as Omicron fuels a tsunami of cases. Australia on Saturday recorded more than 100,000 new COVID infections in a single day for the first time.

“What we want to achieve is those schools and the kids go back and stay back, and we don’t have schools opening and closing, opening and closing and the disruption that that will cause,” Australian President Scott Morrison told reporters this week.   

But Australia’s re-opening shift is abrupt—and not without its detractors. 

“I don’t think we’re ready for children to go to school yet,” Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at Melbourne University and World Health Organization advisor, told Australian outlet ABC News. Australia is set to begin rolling out vaccines to children aged 5-11 next week, and at that point McLaws believes schools may be more ready to open their doors.

Omicron marks a new era in the COVID-19 pandemic, with its high transmissibility and seemingly milder symptoms. Still, in the U.S. it’s stoking the same debate over schools that Americans faced early in the pandemic, even as U.S. peers appear to grow more committed to keeping kids in classrooms.

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