Omicron Disrupts Major School Systems Across the U.S.


Parents greeted their children after the first day of school at a public school in Detroit last year.
Credit…Allison Farrand for The New York Times

Four large city school systems — in Cleveland; Detroit; Milwaukee; and Newark — have joined a growing list of public schools around the country that have postponed reopening after the holiday break, switched to remote instruction, or have taken both steps because of Covid-19 outbreaks and staffing shortages.

Some of the announcements came abruptly, as school leaders struggled to respond to a rapidly changing situation.

  • On Sunday night, the 75,000-student Milwaukee Public Schools system said it would temporarily switch to remote instruction beginning Tuesday, citing “an influx of reported positive Covid-19 cases among district staff.” The system said it hoped to resume in-person instruction on Jan. 10.

  • School officials in Madison, Wis., a district of 27,000 students, delayed the start of classes until Thursday and said they would be held online until Jan. 10.

  • The Detroit school system, citing what officials called a record high test positivity rate of 36 percent in the city, has announced that no school would be held Monday through Wednesday, with more information to follow later in the week. The school system said on Friday that it would test its staff early this week and would distribute laptop computers to students, a sign that more remote learning could be in store.

  • Elsewhere in Michigan, schools in Pontiac will be remote until Jan. 18, and in Ann Arbor through Jan. 10.

  • In Ohio, Cleveland’s public schools, with 35,000 students, were scheduled to be remote this week following an announcement last week by Eric S. Gordon, the school chief. Schools in Lorain and several other northern Ohio districts also were moving to remote instruction.

  • Arthur Culver, the superintendent of schools in East St. Louis, Ill., a 5,200 student district, said in a Facebook post on Friday that classes would begin remotely on Tuesday, citing “very high Covid-19 positivity rates over the winter break within our serving Zip codes.” The district planned to remain remote through Jan. 14.

  • The 35,000-student Newark schools announced last week that they would shift to remote learning today for at least the next two weeks, returning to classrooms on Jan. 18. It is the largest of several New Jersey school systems moving to remote instruction, including Irvington, Cranford and South Orange-Maplewood (until Jan. 10) and Paterson (until Jan. 18).

Some school systems that are open for in-person instruction this week have nonetheless had to shut some school buildings for lack of staff, including eight schools in Columbus, Ohio, and 12 in Pittsburgh.




‘We Are Staying Open,’ New York City Mayor Says of Schools

Mayor Eric Adams of New York City insisted schools would remain open despite surging Omicron cases in the city. He said remote learning has been too damaging, especially to children in low-income neighborhoods and homeless students.

We’re really excited about the opening of our schools, and we want to be extremely clear: The safest place for our children is in a school building. And we are going to keep our schools open, and ensure that our children are safe — in a safe environment. Our children were exposed to an environment of crime and of uncertainty. It really traumatized parents that did not have child care. The remote learning aspect of it was terrible for in poorer communities, particularly those children that lived in homeless shelters or that lived — were housing insecure. The food aspect — schools provide primary meals for many students in this city. And then the socialization. We saw an increase in suicide, attempted suicides. We’re not sending an unclear message of what is going to happen day to day. I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen day to day. We are staying open. We’re going to do everything that we have to do to keep our schools open. And I know there’s questions about staffing. I know this question about testing. There’s a lot of questions, but we’re going to turn those question marks into an exclamation point. We’re staying open.

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Mayor Eric Adams of New York City insisted schools would remain open despite surging Omicron cases in the city. He said remote learning has been too damaging, especially to children in low-income neighborhoods and homeless students.CreditCredit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Mayor Eric Adams insisted on Monday morning that New York City’s schools would stay open despite an extraordinary surge in Omicron cases. He repeated the message in a series of television interviews and after his first official school visit since taking office on New Year’s Day.

“We’re really excited about the opening of our schools,” Mr. Adams said outside the school, Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx. “We want to be extremely clear: the safest place for our children is a school building.”

Mr. Adams said that remote learning had been disastrous for too many of the city’s nearly one million schoolchildren in the nation’s largest school district, and had been particularly harmful for children in low-income neighborhoods and homeless students.

But the calm that Mr. Adams sought to project was not shared by the many parents and educators who greeted Monday morning with profound trepidation. After roughly a year of remarkably low virus transmission in schools, Covid cases soared in the week before the winter break, prompting the closures of eleven schools and over 400 classrooms, and the contact tracing system for city schools effectively collapsed amid the surge.

New York City reported 35,650 new virus cases on Sunday, with a 7-day average test positivity rate of nearly 22 percent, according to state data.

Some families and elected officials have called on Mr. Adams to delay the start of school by a few days to allow every child and educator to get tested. And teachers have raised questions about how schools will be properly staffed with so many teachers sick with the virus or quarantining due to exposures.

“This is an all hands on deck moment,” Mr. Adams said, acknowledging that administrators who are not normally in the classroom would be used to address staff shortages if necessary.

Mr. Adams has endorsed a plan created by former Mayor Bill de Blasio that is designed to keep more classrooms open as the surge continues. The plan calls for distributing 1.5 million rapid at-home test kits to schools.

Starting Monday, the city is also doubling its random in-school testing program to give P.C.R. tests to 20 percent of consenting children in each school weekly. But most families have not opted in to allow their children to be tested, which has made the testing pool very small at some schools.

The mayor and the new schools chancellor, David C. Banks, are betting that their plan to increase testing will prevent major outbreaks.

Mr. Adams and Mr. Banks have so far resisted calls to mandate booster shots for educators or vaccines for children. The mayor has said a decision will be made this spring about mandating vaccines for students for the fall.

“We’re not at the point of mandate,” Mr. Adams said Monday, as he encouraged eligible New Yorkers to get vaccinated and boosted.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers’ union, said in an email to members that he had encouraged Mr. Adams to start the year remotely. But on Monday morning, Mr. Mulgrew said he was working closely with the new mayor and that schools had been some of the safest places in the city throughout the pandemic.

“We’re going to turn those question marks into an exclamation point: we’re staying open,” Mr. Adams said.


Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Days after announcing that classes for K-12 students would be held in person after the holiday break, officials with Atlanta Public Schools reversed their decision, saying on Saturday that classes would be online only during the first week of the year.

The decision came “after further review of district and community Covid-19 data,” a statement from the district said. Nearby Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Rockdale counties have also pushed back the return to in-person classes because of high infection rates in those areas.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Health reported more than 24,000 cases of Covid-19 in the state. As of Sunday, the state had a seven-day average of 14,343 cases per day, according to a New York Times database. That is a spike of more than 700 percent over two weeks.

The Atlanta school district recorded its second highest weekly count of positive cases for the school year during the final week of the fall semester, with 306 students and 129 employees testing positive. The highest positivity rate was in August when 520 people were sick.

Students who needed laptops and other devices for virtual classes were encouraged to pick them up at their schools on Monday. Those who needed meal kits could pick them up at one of eight schools across the city.

Atlanta Public Schools staff members were required to go to work on Monday for mandatory Covid testing unless they were sick.

“The data collected from staff testing will be used for future planning,” the district’s statement on Saturday said.

Students are expected to return to in-person classes on Jan. 10.


Credit…Rachel Woolf for The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, a group that became eligible for initial shots in May.

Regulators also shortened by a month the amount of time that adults and adolescents should wait between second and third doses, allowing them to seek booster shots five months after second injections. And they allowed some immunocompromised children aged 5 to 11 to seek a third shot, including those who have undergone solid organ transplants or have conditions that amount to “an equivalent level of immunocompromise,” the F.D.A. said in a statement.

A booster dose “may help provide better protection against both the Delta and Omicron variants,” said Dr. Peter Marks, a top regulator who oversees the agency’s vaccines office. “In particular, the Omicron variant appears to be slightly more resistant to the antibody levels produced in response to the primary series doses from the current vaccines.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory committee is expected to meet this week to review the F.D.A. moves and decide whether to recommend the changes. If it does, the C.D.C.’s director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, is expected to quickly sign off on them, in what is typically seen as the final step before changes to vaccination schedules are set in motion.

The advisory committee’s meeting could be an opportunity for Pfizer and the federal government to present any data that supports the booster authorizations, including information on the safety of third doses for young adolescents.

Before authorizing third shots for 12- to 15-year-olds, the F.D.A. said that it examined real-world safety data from Israel on more than 6,300 people in that age group who received booster shots at least five months after a second dose. That data “enabled the F.D.A. to reassess the benefits and risks of the use of a booster in the younger adolescent population in the setting of the current surge in Covid-19 cases,” the agency said.

The review showed no new safety concerns, including no new cases of myocarditis, a rare heart-related side effect that has been tied to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, particularly in younger men.

Regulators also relied on Israeli data in shortening the interval between second and third doses of the Pfizer vaccine. No new safety issues have emerged in the United States among more than four million people 16 and older who got a third dose at least five months after a second, the F.D.A. said. And because studies have shown that a Pfizer booster dose increases protection against the Omicron variant, a shorter interval might offer “better protection sooner,” the agency said.


Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Monthly benefits to millions of American families with children — a key part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic — have ended just as the latest wave of coronavirus cases is keeping people home from work and school.

The payments, an expansion of the child tax credit, started in July and amounted to hundreds of dollars a month for most families. They have helped millions of American families pay for food, rent and child care; kept millions of children out of poverty; and injected billions of dollars into the U.S. economy, according to government data and independent research.

“It’s going to be hard next month, and just thinking about it, it really makes me want to bite my nails to the quick,” said Anna Lara, a mother of two young children in Huntington, W.Va. “Honestly, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to be hard going back to not having it.”

The expansion made the child tax credit worth up to $3,600 a year per child, rather than $2,000, and made it a monthly payment rather than an annual windfall. It also made the full benefit available to millions who had been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. For now, at least, the provisions will revert to the credit’s earlier form.

The end of the extra assistance for parents is the latest in a long line of benefits “cliffs” that Americans have encountered as pandemic aid programs have expired. The Treasury Department paid out about $80 billion over six months in the form of checks and direct deposits of up to $300 per child each month.

Unlike most other programs created in response to the pandemic, the expanded child benefit was never intended to be temporary, at least according to many of its backers. Congress approved it for a single year as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, but many progressives hoped that the payments, once started, would prove too popular to stop.

That didn’t happen. Polls found the public roughly divided over whether the program should be extended, with opinions splitting along partisan and generational lines. And the expanded tax credit failed to win over the individual whose opinion mattered most: Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who cited concerns over the cost and structure of the program in his decision to oppose Mr. Biden’s climate, tax and social policy bill. The bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, cannot proceed in the evenly divided Senate without Mr. Manchin’s support.

To supporters of the expanded child benefit, the failure to extend it is especially frustrating because, according to most analyses, the program itself has been a remarkable success: Studies have found that the benefit reduced hunger, lowered financial stress among recipients and increased overall consumer spending, especially in rural states that received the most money per capita.

“What we’ve seen with the child tax credit is a policy success story that was unfolding, but it’s a success story that we risk stopping in its tracks just as it was getting started,” said Megan Curran, director of policy at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. “The weight of the evidence is clear here in terms of what the policy is doing. It’s reducing child poverty and food insufficiency.”


Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The United States surgeon general warned last month that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The message came as part of a rare public advisory from the nation’s top physician, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, in a 53-page report noting that the pandemic intensified mental health issues that were already widespread by the spring of 2020.

The report cited significant increases in self-reports of depression, anxiety and emergency-room visits for mental health challenges. In the United States, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared with the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4 percent for boys.

Globally, symptoms of anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic, the report noted. But mental health issues were already on the rise in the United States, with emergency room visits related to depression, anxiety and related issues up 28 percent between 2011 and 2015.

The reasons are complex and not yet definitive. Adolescent brain chemistry and relationships with friends and family are important factors, the report noted, as is a fast-paced media culture, which can leave some young minds feeling helpless.

“Young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth — telling them they are not good-looking enough, popular enough, smart enough or rich enough,” Dr. Murthy wrote in the report. “That comes as progress on legitimate, and distressing, issues like climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the opioid epidemic and gun violence feels too slow.”

The surgeon general’s advisory adds to a growing number of calls for attention and action around adolescent mental health. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association joined to declare “a national emergency” in youth mental health.

Although blame for adolescent distress is often pinned on social media, the research suggests that screen time alone does not account for crisis. Rather, social media and other online activities act more to amplify an adolescent’s existing mental state, causing some to feel more distress and others to experience enhanced feelings of connection.

Bonnie Nagel, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Oregon Health & Science University who treats and studies adolescents, said that online interactions appear not to satisfy core needs for connection.

Recent research she co-authored shows that loneliness is a key predictor in feelings of depression and suicidal ideation.

“I don’t think it is genuine human connection when talking to somebody with a fake façade online,” Dr. Nagel said.

At the same time, screen time may be displacing activities known to be vital to physical and mental health, including sleep, exercise and in-person activity, research shows. The current generation of youth express heightened levels of loneliness — more than any other age group — despite spending countless hours connected over media.

Authorities and scientists widely acknowledge that there has been insufficient research into the underlying causes. Dr. Murthy’s advisory calls for more resources to be devoted to understanding and addressing mental health challenges, and it urges a greater appreciation of mental health as a key factor in overall health.

“This is a moment to demand change,” the report concludes.


An earlier version of this article misstated the period in which adolescent emergency room visits for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges rose by 28 percent. It was between 2011 and 2015, not from 2007 to 2018.

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