According to a survey of 148.400 parents, last month, during the Omicron wave, a quarter of U.S. schoolchildren missed at least one week of in-person learning.
Most students were at home for at least three days and almost one in ten were away for more than half of the month. The disruptions occurred in all parts of the country, and no region was spared.
This survey showed that interruptions were more widespread than previously estimated. It demonstrates the degree to which classroom closures have upended children’s education and parents’ routines, even two years into the pandemic.
Five days of in-person school per week used to be almost guaranteed. Some parents are now wondering if they’ll get that level of certainty again.
“I would say I’m about 75 percent certain school will be open” each week, said Noelle Rodriguez, a mother and hair stylist in Fresno, Calif., who moved her salon to her house, installing a sink and buying a hair dryer chair, when it became clear school wouldn’t open last year. “I can’t say 100 percent, which is one of the reasons I stayed working from home.”
The reasons for being sent home went beyond Covid exposures and infections. Schools continue to experience the fallout of remote schools last year, including burnout among staff and teachers, and shortages in students and teachers. In some cases, teachers have staged sickouts or asked for “wellness” or “school climate” days.
It’s much less common than last year for whole districts to close. Schools are closing down individual schools, classrooms, or quarantining teachers and children. While this has allowed more children stay in school, it has left little data about how many students are missing from school. The survey was conducted online by Dynata between February 4 and 16, at The Times’ request. It asked parents how many weeks their youngest child was absent from school in January. (The Times asked how many days were missed in total; some parents may have counted Martin Luther King’s Birthday or snow days, and others may not have.)
Nearly a third (33%) of New York City students stayed home during January in New York City. To stop the spread of Omicron, some districts, such as those in Atlanta or Detroit, did not reopen following the holiday break. In Sandy, Utah, students independently study at home some Fridays to help with teachers’ “exhaustion and burnout.” In Fairview, Ore., a middle school closed for three weeks for student misbehavior.
Many school districts now practice this behavior, which is a reflection of a new comfort level with keeping children at home, even on short notice. This was not the case before the pandemic.
Ms. Rodriguez’s decision in Fresno ended up being prescient. Several classrooms at her children’s school closed following positive cases, and then in January, Covid rolled through her family. Her third grade daughter was at home for two week. Her husband is a sheet metal foreman, and can’t work from home.
“I cannot collect unemployment, I don’t get any sick pay, I’m self-employed, so I had zero income during that time,” she said. “It’s a lot, but we make it work.”
Many states and cities are dropping restrictions on large school gatherings, as well as mask mandates, as cases have fallen. Only one fifth of American children aged 5-11 are fully vaccinated. Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, a data company that tracks closures in over 5,000 school districts, stated that some districts have started planning for virtual days during seasonal Covid spread.
“It’s almost like building a house in an earthquake zone,” he said. “You want it to be a little flexible. You want to build some shock absorbers in the system.”
According to Burbio’s data, school closings have decreased in February. This suggests that students were kept at home more often than any other month in the school year. As the year has gone on, schools have also become less likely to close for public health precautions or for teachers’ mental health.
Other pressures have been relieved for schools trying to keep students in school. Many states and school districts have increased the pay or lowered requirements for substitute teachers. More students are able to stay in school because of changes in public health guidance regarding isolation and quarantine.
Chuck Alberts, the president of the Lansing Schools Education Association in Michigan, the teachers’ union there, said the district had done a lot to keep schools open. Schools doubled some classrooms’ sizes and asked teachers to pick up extra classes during free periods and lunch breaks. The district provided free testing for any children and staff with Covid symptoms.
“Being an urban district, we understand a school is much more than a spot for getting education,” he said. “We are the warm meal provider for breakfast and lunch, at least, and we’re the spot to come for heat.”
But even with those measures, the district still asked students to spend the first week of January at home for remote learning, when infection rates were so high that some schools couldn’t staff all their classrooms. Mr. Alberts stated that some teachers were so exhausted from their increased workloads that they called in sick after completing a full week.
“There’s no longer the normal of pre-March 13, 2020,” he said. “I think we’re really at a spot where we need to redefine what education is going to look like going forward.”
Others report that things are stabilizing in other districts. Two days in January saw schools close in Cleveland City (Tenn.) because of Omicron Infection. 95 adultsRussell Dyer (director of schools at the school) said that there were no employees. He noted that they had also been closed for a day or so during bad flu seasons, before the arrival Covid.
Research is showing that closures have had a significant impact on families with young children.
Data shows that students began the year with half a school year behind in math, reading, and many are also struggling socially and emotionally. Some educators claim they need more time off, or more time without students to deal with the increased workload. Some educators argue that students need more school time to develop their skills.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Information
Closures or the mere risk of them have kept some parents from working. At the beginning of February, five million people — 12 percent of adults who are neither working nor retired — said they were out of work because they were caring for a child who would usually be in school or child care, according to a Census Bureau survey. Federal paid leave is not available for those in this situation; it expired December 2020.
Early in the pandemic, parents were more likely to say that viral spread, more than children’s academic and emotional well-being, should be a major factor in whether to keep schools open. According to a Pew Research Center survey, more parents now believe the opposite. These beliefs were divided: Parents who were white, Republican, or wealthy were more likely to choose in-person school.
Erin Bray, a Portland-based education nonprofit, is the mother to two young children. In January, the district was closed for two weeks of distant learning because of Omicron.
Ms. Bray said it felt like a reprieve for the children and staff — her husband is a third-grade teacher — and not too stressful for her family because the closure was short, and she works from home.
“The last two years have taken such a toll on our educators, and that compounding stress added to an already stressful job seems to be wearing everyone down,” she said.
M. Cecilia Bocanegra is a Chicago-based psychotherapist and mother of three. Her district had no school for five days in January because of a teachers’ union dispute over Covid precautions. The closure started on the first day of a new job for her husband, a lawyer, so she had to cancel her patients’ appointments or see them virtually while her children were home.
“If it’s about staffing, I understand that,” she said. “But if we’re going to wait until everyone’s feeling safe? We were afraid we would return to last year. This was the date of return being pushed out and pushed back. It means a lot of anxiety, and it’s just not sustainable for the long haul.”
Researchers who have been following service workers in Philadelphia since fall 2020 have found that unexpected closures can be especially stressful for children. Unplanned disruptions to school caused children to be more disruptive and feel sadder. Parents were also more upset and had shorter tempers.
“Routine is really important for young children’s sense of stability in the world and is known to be important for healthy development in kids, so when routine gets disrupted, that creates additional stressors,” said Anna Gassman-Pines, an author of the study who teaches public policy, psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “Any effort to increase predictability would be helpful.”
Josh KatzContributed reporting
Source: NY Times