Return to remote schooling brings despair in US as Omicron surges
Latonya Peterson sums up her frustration as a parent over Detroit schools returning – at least temporarily – to virtual learning in three short words: “I hate it.”
Facing a surge in Covid-19 cases, the Detroit district this week joined a growing number of others in moving classes online after the winter break.
The shift involving 50,000 students once again leaves parents juggling home and work schedules around the educational needs of their children.
A single parent who works more than 60 hours each week at two jobs, Peterson sometimes had to miss work to help her teenage son during more than a year of online learning.
“I will have to take time off, but I’m looking at how long this is going to last. You only get so many off days and so many paid time-off days,” Peterson said on Wednesday, a day after the district announced that students would resume classes at home with laptops through at least 14 January.
The vast majority of US districts appear to be returning to in-person learning, but other large school systems including those in Newark, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Cleveland have gone back to remote learning as infections soar and sideline staff members. Dozens of smaller districts have followed, including many around Detroit, Chicago and Washington.
The disruptions also raise alarms about risks to students. Long stretches of remote learning over the last two years have taken a toll, leaving many kids with academic and mental health setbacks that experts are still trying to understand.
Joe Biden, who campaigned on a promise to reopen classrooms, is pressing schools to remain open. With vaccines and regular virus testing, his administration has said there’s no reason to keep schools closed.
“We have no reason to think at this point that Omicron is worse for children than previous variants,” Biden told reporters earlier this week. “We know that our kids can be safe when in school.”
But the reality for some districts is not so simple: Testing supplies have been scarce, and many districts face low vaccine uptake in their communities. In Detroit, just 44% of residents five and older have received a vaccine dose, compared with a statewide rate of 63%.
In a letter to parents, Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti said: “The only way we’re going to get to the other side of this pandemic is if we move to higher rates of vaccination.”
The closures are often driven by waves of teachers calling in sick. More than a third of Philadelphia’s 216 public schools have switched to remote learning through at least Friday.
Chicago students remained out of school for a third straight day on Friday, after school leaders failed to reach an agreement with the teachers union over virus safety protocols. The union wants to revert to remote instruction because of the infection surge.
In Detroit, both Peterson and her son, Joshua Jackson, 16, are vaccinated. Joshua would rather stay in-person and said it was more difficult for him to focus in a virtual classroom.
“I feel like I learned less,” the high school junior said. “I’m worried that we won’t go back to class. They (the district) did it before and said it only would be a short while. It turned out to be the whole school year.”
Officials in districts that are returning to online instruction insist the move is only temporary, with most intending to go back to in-person classes within a week or two. As infections reach record levels in some areas, some parents say it’s the right move.
The Omicron-driven surge has likely not topped out yet in the US, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen the peak yet here in the United States,” she told NBC’s Today show.
The US reported 662,000 new cases on Thursday, the fourth highest daily figure in the pandemic.