Omicron Is Making a Mess of Instruction, Even Where Schools Are Open

Corrected: A previous version of this story misstated the year of the presidential election in Tracy Freeman’s lesson. It was the election of 1968.

Nearly all schools returned from winter break with in-person learning this week, amid record-breaking COVID-19 case counts. But the virus is still causing widespread disruptions to learning.

The surge has pushed thousands of schools to close temporarily, garnering praise from some families who feel it’s the best option for keeping children safe, and rebuke from others who say even a short-term closure is detrimental to students’ mental health—and their academic progress. But despite the controversy, the vast majority of schools remain open. And even without the frustrations of remote learning, teachers say that students’ absences and staff shortages have thrown a wrench in their plans for the beginning of this semester, making it impossible to continue with their curriculum.

Omicron has been a logistical nightmare and taken an emotional toll on schools and the families they serve. It’s also complicated educators’ plans for making headway with academic recovery. Teachers are worried that the effects of this relatively short disruption will reverberate through the school year.

Emilie Jones, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher at CIS 303 Leadership and Community Service Academy in New York City, should have been in the middle of a unit on gender and identity this week. She had planned to have her students read Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations and then start learning how to analyze complex text. All of that’s been put on hold.

Because of staff shortages, Jones is with her advisory class all day, instead of seeing all her classes like she normally would. Only about half of her 29 advisory students are in attendance, with at least two sent home this week after failing a health screener.

“I don’t want to go on with the rest of my curriculum, because we are missing so many kids,” she said. Instead, Jones waits to see who turns up each day, gives them a short entry task to see what skills they might need more practice with, and assigns them individualized work in what she calls a “Zoom-from-the-room situation.”

“I feel like I’m in a holding pattern,” she said.

In the five weeks since the Omicron variant of COVID-19 entered the United States, it’s pushed new—and breakthrough—infections to some of the highest levels since the start of the pandemic. The surge has spanned two major school holidays, Thanksgiving and winter break, forcing district leaders into difficult decisions about how to handle rising case counts and mounting staff absences.

Some districts have delayed the return of in-person classes for several days or weeks, temporarily switching back to remote learning. Staffing issues were driving many of the decisions to close schools after the holiday break, according to Burbio, a firm that’s been tracking COVID-related school closures. As of Jan. 6, Burbio counted 4,783 public schools that had decided not to offer in-person instruction one or more days this week.

But that’s less than 5 percent of the 98,700 public K-12 schools in the country. The vast majority are offering face-to-face learning, in part due to continued pressure from public health experts, parents, and political leaders who maintain that keeping schools open is essential for students’ well-being and learning.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the Biden administration expects schools to be open for full-time, in-person learning. “They’ve suffered enough,” he said of students, adding that there might be “some bumps in the road” as schools manage staff absences.

But in interviews with Education Week, some teachers said that their schools are encountering troubles that are far bigger than bumps in the road. “We’re losing about 3-4 weeks worth of instructional time, so things will have to be cut in the curriculum,” Jones said.

Joshua Goodman, an education economist at Boston University who’s been studying the impact of COVID on school enrollment, said the current disruptions caused by Omicron don’t bode well for students.

“This was supposed to be a stabilizing year, where we could make up for lost time,” he said. “But it hasn’t turned out that way.”

‘We’re definitely slowing down’

Medical experts are holding out hope that the current Omicron wave will subside soon. In South Africa, where it first emerged, case rates driven by Omicron rose and began to subside within two months. Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease expert, said current modeling at the University of California-San Francisco, where she’s a professor of medicine, shows a peak in mid-January.

But for the moment, Dr. Gandhi acknowledged, Omicron puts schools in a tough spot. “Test-to-stay” protocols—which federal officials have urged schools to use, because they can allow people who have been exposed to the virus to stay in school if they test negative—can only do so much when so many adults and children are actually testing positive for COVID-19.

“We have to expect that the next few weeks will be very rocky,” Dr. Gandhi said.

If COVID rates decline soon, the remaining months of the school year offer a lot of opportunity for teaching and learning, Goodman said, “but I’m not sure I see that as enough to make up for all the lost time.” The academic losses, and the emotional setbacks students have suffered, could well require more time than schools have to offer, he said.

Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit that works with districts, has a different take on the academic recovery timeline.

“Recovery isn’t an event. It’s a journey,” she said. “We need to think how we support recovery over many years. This is not something that’s going to happen in a specific time-bound way. The question is, if you were in 1st grade in the 2021 school year, how do we make sure by the end of 5th grade you’re caught back up?”

Some teachers have already started to alter the course of their curriculum for the rest of the semester, trying to hit the key skills and understandings they’ll need for success in future grades and jettison the rest.

“We’re definitely slowing down,” said Tracy Freeman, a U.S. History and psychology teacher at Normal West High School in Normal, Ill. Freeman had between 10-30 percent of students in her classes absent this week.

“I don’t know what I would do if I had an AP or a scripted class, where you don’t have time to let off the gas pedal,” she said.

She’s planning to streamline her lessons, focusing more on critical thinking skills like crafting historical arguments and less on names and dates. “If they can Google it, I’m going to try to lessen its importance in my class this year,” she said.

She’s also adjusted the first full lesson she has planned so that students who are quarantined at home can participate, too. Usually, she would do an interactive brainstorming session centered on the presidential election of 1968, asking students to walk around the room and discuss different political events that factored into the contest.

That’s not an option this time, because a student who missed that day wouldn’t be able to easily make up the lesson. Instead, she’s doing a textbook-based activity.

This wave of absences is a new challenge, but Freeman prefers this period of the pandemic to spring 2020, or to remote learning last school year. She’s glad to see students in class when she can. And some of the social aspects of school are still available to kids.

“At least they’re getting to have their sports, their extracurriculars, their homecomings,” she said.

Omicron is far from being the first disruption to learning this school year

Other teachers say this year has been the most chaotic yet in the pandemic—and Omicron has only worsened the situation.

Jim Bentley, a 5th grade teacher in Elk Grove, Calif., said he’s had more students out this week for COVID-related reasons than earlier this semester. But the Delta variant hit his community hard, too. This school year, he’s tried to find ways to keep students learning with higher-than-average absence rates.

Following district guidelines, Bentley prepares paper packets of work for students who are out on quarantine, and has tried to supplement those with activities in online platforms. Even so, he said, “I’m fearful that we’ve got a lot of kids’ time being wasted.”

Staffing shortages throughout the semester have added to the academic disruption in some districts.

“We had teachers out with COVID first semester,” said Amanda Feltner, a Spanish teacher in Michigan Center, Mich. “They were out for a week, or two weeks. Sometimes we could get a sub that would cover that whole time, but sometimes it was a different sub every day.”

Even before the Omicron variant started to spread, it was hard to maintain continuity of instruction, Feltner said. “It’s just a constant, who’s supposed to be here and who’s not supposed to be here? Did I get the work sent to the kids who needed it? It’s just a lot to keep track of.”

Bentley, the California teacher, predicted this uncertainty will lead to uneven progress for students.

“I feel like we have potentially more opportunity for learning gains and more opportunity for learning loss than we did last year,” he said, when his district was fully virtual. In the 2020-21 school year, all of his students had access to the same material online, but engagement could be low. This year, engagement is higher with students in person. But because of the varied absences, not every student is experiencing the same lessons.

Some students have had huge breakthroughs, especially in math, which Bentley attributes to them being able to discuss and work through problems together, in person, with peers and a teacher. But other subjects are harder to manage when kids have unpredictable absences. If a student misses a peer revision day in writing, for example, it’s hard to make that up, he said.

“I’m hoping we can make it through January, make it through three-day weekends in February, and sail through March, April, June,” he said. “I’m hoping spring means greener days ahead, literally and metaphorically.”