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US schools bring back remote learning amid COVID-19 rise, challenging administration goal of keeping them open

Schools across the U.S. are bringing back remote learning this month, amidst a national surge in COVID-19 cases

Washington D.C. area’s Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson announced that the school district would shift to virtual learning on Monday “in light of the stark rise in COVID-19 cases throughout [its] school system.” 

In-person learning there is expected to resume on Jan. 18.

Maine’s Oxford Hill School District closed Otisfield Community School, writing in a Dec. 15 Facebook post that in-school COVID-19 transmission was at a rate of 70%.

New York’s Oswego City School District temporarily transitioned to remote learning after a “high number of staffing shortages” and a rise in COVID-19 cases and quarantine.

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An elementary school in Monmouth County, New Jersey switched to virtual instruction after many employees were reported in isolation or quarantine.

Georgia’s Clayton County Public Schools officials said two middle schools were also experiencing staffing shortages and the schools pivoted to remote learning Thursday and Friday.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, three Atlanta schools took similar action, with a couple of thousand students learning virtually after COVID-19 cases prompted building closures.

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site near the NYU campus in New York, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Colleges across the U.S. are starting to require booster shots, extend mask mandates and in some cases revert to online classes as they brace for the new omicron variant. On Wednesday, New York University canceled all non-academic events and encouraged professors to move finals online. 

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site near the NYU campus in New York, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Colleges across the U.S. are starting to require booster shots, extend mask mandates and in some cases revert to online classes as they brace for the new omicron variant. On Wednesday, New York University canceled all non-academic events and encouraged professors to move finals online. 
(AP Photo/Seth Wen)

Spectrum News 1 reported that a North Carolina school for students with autism is also temporarily reverting to remote learning for one week as a precaution against the virus.

Minnesota’s East Grand Forks Public Schools temporarily transitioned to distance learning and Big Springs Elementary in Garland, Texas took action to suspend in-person instruction through Friday.

Colleges and universities have also made decisions to shift tests online and cancel events. 

Last week, Vermont’s Middlebury College switched to remote instruction and postponed in-person events for the rest of the semester.

“While many of the new cases we have identified appear to be connected, occurring in clusters among people who socialize together, an increase in the prevalence of COVID-19 increases the likelihood of broader community transmission,” the small liberal arts college said in a message to the school community. “Given the timing of this increase, coinciding with the end of the fall semester and imminent student departures, we have decided to move immediately to remote instruction and postpone in-person events.”

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New York City’s New York University announced this week that it would take action in response to what it said was a “considerable acceleration in the rate of new [COVID-19] cases” in its community, canceling events and strongly encouraging final examinations and assessments be changed to a remote format.

Cornell University and New Jersey’s Princeton University said that they would shift to remote formats due to concerns regarding the omicron variant. Princeton also required all eligible students, faculty and staff to get a booster shot by Jan. 31, 2022. 

The University of Michigan – which had a worrying influenza outbreak in Novembersaid Friday it would do the same.

All of this comes after White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters in a Friday briefing that the Biden administration is “intent on not letting omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated,” and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky promoted the “test to stay” practice.

“Test to stay” allows unvaccinated children to stay in school even if they have been exposed to the virus.

“In the test-to-stay protocol, there is increased testing of close contacts after a COVID-19 exposure, and that testing needs to be at least twice during the seven-day period after exposure. If exposed children meet a certain criteria and continue to test negative, they can stay in school instead of quarantining at home,” the CDC chief explained, noting that CDC studies had demonstrated that “‘test to stay’ works to keep unvaccinated children in school safely.”

However, the latest delta surge – and expected omicron surge – have yielded worrying results, with hospitals once again having to delay surgeries and turn away transfers and events are being canceled

U.S. public health officials called for the millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated to get shots – though the administration resisted tightening restrictions. 

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“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death, for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” Zients warned. 

So far, omicron has been detected in more than 40 states.

Although much remains unknown about the “variant of concern,” including its severity and ability to evade immune protection and vaccines, experts warn that it appears more transmissible than the delta variant. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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