Omicron’s impacts on the 2022 back-to-school season

Coronavirus particle, white with flowering red spikes

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has complicated the return to the classroom after winter break. The United States is averaging more than 300,000 new cases a day for the first time in the pandemic as of January 5, 2021. Hospitalizations are growing at a much slower rate than cases. The increasing spread of the virus is causing some districts to shift back to remote learning and is impacting teacher and staffing shortages. 

In Washington D.C., public schools have enacted a policy of requiring students and staff to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test in order to return to in-person instruction. New York City is providing ample numbers of tests for students who may test positive for Covid-19 and assess when they’re ready to return to in-person learning. San Antonio’s independent school district is leaning into their substitute teacher workforce as many full-time teachers are falling ill or don’t feel safe returning for in-person instruction regarding non-compliance with mask-wearing. Houston’s independent school district is providing drive-thru testing for students, parents, and staff to make sure that back-to-school plans remain in place. In Austin, district officials are pressing forward with in-person learning for the spring semester but recommend that students, parents, and teachers double mask while on campus. Transitioning to remote learning is not off the table for some districts. Dallas-area Richardson ISD transitioned the last few days of the Fall 2021 school year to remote after learning of more than two dozen cases in a single day, followed by an increase in student and staffing absences that were COVID-19 related. 

Health experts remain divided in recommendations and policy on how to handle back-to-school plans for local districts and the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services is urging districts across the country to ensure that their institutions are safe, ready, and open for in-person instruction. The advice from the federal government consists of continuing with the vaccine campaign, increasing testing options for everyone, sanitizing commonly touched surfaces, and strict mask-wearing for all — including the vaccinated. 

While the response varies around the country, parents are nervous about the prospect of sending their child to a place where they could contract the virus. More studies are underway as to why COVID-19 has mutated to become more infectious, and there’s increasing evidence to suggest that it’s less severe of a disease compared to the once-dominant Delta variant. CDC data shows that in the week ending on December 28, there was about an average of 378 children hospitalized per day with COVID-19. However, health experts agree: vaccination against COVID-19 protects everyone—including children—from severe illness and greatly diminishes the risk of hospitalizations. While breakthrough cases among the vaccinated have been reported, the vast majority of severe illnesses and deaths caused by COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated.