COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

Public health experts and doctors urge that schools must stay open throughout Omicron at any cost

January 13, 2022, 3:52 PM UTC
A principal in Orlando performs temperature checks on students arriving at school.
Principal Nathan Hay performs temperature checks on students as they arrive on the first day of classes for the 2021–22 school year at Baldwin Park Elementary School in Orlando.
Paul Hennessy—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Nearly two years into the pandemic, parents, teachers, and policymakers have gone several rounds over the efficacy of closing schools to protect against the continued spread of COVID-19. 

The highly contagious Omicron variant, coupled with persistent staffing shortages, has thrust this debate back into the spotlight, prompting many to ask: Is the risk of catching COVID worth the benefit of in-person education? 

“Knowing that the virus is here to stay, and we’ll all be exposed to it, how much do we disrupt society?” Vinay Prasad, a physician and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, told Fortune Monday. “All policy should start with the principle that complete avoidance is no longer possible.”

To flatten the curve, closing schools should be a city’s last, not first, move, Prasad said, and most professionals—doctors, public health experts, teachers, and superintendents—fall in nearly uniform agreement: It’s crucial for schools to remain open.  

“I’d rather everything else close before schools,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, told Fortune Tuesday, noting that during the 1918 flu pandemic, “schools in New York City never closed for more than four months, even though fatality rates were worse than COVID.”

While the benefits of keeping schools open are clear, the logistics can be difficult. 

“There’s no question that superintendents want kids in school; that’s where they belong,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told Fortune on Tuesday. But the main roadblock, he’s found, isn’t Omicron, it’s staffing shortages.

“Across the country, people are reporting teacher shortages,” he said. “It’s not just teachers, it’s affecting superintendents and principals as well. I have never seen the number of superintendents and principals leaving the job that I have seen this year. The whole education workforce is in peril right now.”

That’s not an overstatement. A Rand Corporation study published last summer found that a quarter of teachers and 40% of principals are considering quitting. In the 2020–2021 school year, one in three teachers surveyed were responsible for caring for their own children while teaching, and “a much higher proportion of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general adult population.”

On the whole, teachers who are able to be in the classroom—namely, not out sick—are desperate for a return to normalcy.

This week, all 39 high schools in the Dallas Independent School District are operating 100% in-person, despite the fact that the COVID case count has never been higher and fewer than 10% of kids ages 10 to 17 in Dallas are vaccinated.

Ninth grade English teacher Steven Santoyo is still coming to work and strongly believes in-person instruction is crucial, even if he characterizes this school year as a “survival year.” Amid an absenteeism crisis, Santoyo says his classrooms are typically about 70% full. But sometimes only 16 kids show up to his 35-student class. 

“It’s kind of head-spinning for teachers, being the only ones in the room doing the accommodating,” he told Fortune on Monday. “Some people compare teaching right now to being a flight attendant when a plane is hitting turbulence. The flight attendant stays calm and collected. I’m tired at the end of the day because I’m trying to stay positive and get the kids’ minds off things for eight hours straight.”

The necessity of risk mitigation

Young people’s access to in-person, high-quality education, and the safe place teachers create in schools, is essential, Mary Elizabeth Davis, superintendent of K–12 schools in Henry County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, told Fortune Tuesday. “We know too much to abandon the commitment to open doors for kids.”  

But in-person education relies on adequate funding and commitment, said Jon Levy, chair of the environmental health department at Boston University’s School of Public Health, and school districts, broadly, need certain tools to remain open safely. 

Those tools include vaccination requirements, high-quality masks, ventilation, and filtration in school buildings, and routine testing protocols. “Altogether, those tools can keep schools open and running safely,” Levy told Fortune Monday. “The question is, have we made the investments to make that possible?”

According to some students and teachers, we haven’t, and across the U.S., they have taken matters into their own hands, walking out of schools and going on strike to get the attention of local officials.

In New York City on Tuesday, hundreds of high school students across the city staged a walkout to demand tighter health protocols. The organizers said they hoped to get the attention of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks, with the goal of closing schools temporarily during the Omicron surge and pushing the NYC Department of Education to improve health screening measures.

“What we’re doing right now is not school,” said Samantha Farrow, 16, one of the walkout’s organizers. “They want people to believe school is functioning as normal, but it’s not.” 

On Wednesday, teachers in Chicago returned to the classroom after a highly publicized strike, which closed schools for nearly a week. The teachers union was pushing Mayor Lori Lightfoot to agree to changes to COVID safety protocols, including schools going remote if 25% of teachers or 30% of staff were exposed to COVID and required to isolate (Lightfoot’s administration was pushing for 40% of teachers and 50% of students).

This isn’t March 2020—or even January 2021

Despite the unsettling Omicron wave, the U.S. remains in a markedly better position than this time last year, when most of the population wasn’t yet eligible for vaccines, Prasad and Gandhi, the UCSF physicians, said.  

“I’ve been advocating for risk-benefit analyses in COVID-related decision-making for two years, and the biggest risk is kids being out of school,” Gandhi said. “In my analysis, that’s number one. Close the other things.”

“We have 43,000 students, and we’ve been fully in-person since August,” Davis, the Henry County, Georgia, superintendent told Fortune Tuesday.

“We don’t have a homogenous community,” Davis said. Almost half (44%) of Henry County students receive free or reduced lunch, 58% of students are Black, 23% are white, and 12% are Hispanic or multiracial. “We’ve navigated all perspectives and backgrounds here, and we all share that core belief that kids need school.”

Across grades kindergarten through 12th, Davis doesn’t believe any age group fares better learning remotely than they do in-person. “You can rely on high school students to make independent decisions in their learning if you’re remote. But there are a lot of tactile skills for younger kids, like gluing and cutting, that can’t be done virtually. Even for older kids, things like robotics and chemistry labs are in-person. A very small percentage of kids excel in remote learning.” 

Schools, significantly, aren’t a catalyst for spread, she said. “As a matter of fact, when schools are in session, the rate of community spread is no greater than when schools are closed. Mitigation measures work.”

Although school outbreaks are possible, the CDC wrote in December, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is “typically lower than—or at least similar to—levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place.”

While bars, concert venues, and sports arenas remain open, and the only place being asked to close their doors are schools, “society doesn’t have its priorities straight,” Davis said. “Public schools have to report every close contact and positive case to the department of public health, and bars and restaurants don’t. We’ve demonstrated such awareness of COVID cases in schools that we forget those experiences are happening in other community environments.”

Additionally, she’s found that 98% of students identified as close contacts remained healthy during their quarantine period. 

“Day in, day out, I’ve monitored every case, every impact on every grade level, every hallway, every classroom, and I believe schools remain the safest place kids can be,” Davis said. “Access to education is not something to be taken lightly. Young people need the safe spaces that schools and educators create. That’s worth figuring out how to do safely.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.