Chicago Public Schools, teachers in deadlock over remote learning; more colleges require booster shots for students, staff

·9 min read

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Chicago Public Schools close as teachers union deadlocks with city over COVID restrictions

Chicago Public Schools, the country's third-largest school district, remained closed on Friday because of clashes with the district's teachers union about COVID-19 safety protocols.

Earlier this week, members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to have all members work remotely, starting on Wednesday. However, teachers were locked out of their remote classrooms by school officials, something that the union documented on Twitter.  

Chicago Public Schools have seen a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases this week. According to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, 653 staff members and 847 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 2. The union said that, as of Wednesday night, about 9,000 students and "a record" 2,300 staffers were isolating after testing positive for COVID or in quarantine due to having close contact with someone who tested positive.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made it clear that she wants students to return to in-person learning. "In a time of crisis related to this pandemic, the worst possible thing we can do is abandon the science and data," she wrote on Twitter. "If you care about our students and families as we do, we will not relent. We are standing firm and fighting to get our kids back to in-person learning."

Chicago isn't the only school district in the country to go remote or to try to go remote. More than 80 Philadelphia-area school districts went remote this week due to COVID-19 concerns, and several school districts in Illinois have also switched to remote learning due to the pandemic.

The Chicago Teachers Union is requesting that the district allow for remote learning until the current surge in COVID-19 cases subsides or until the union and city officials can agree on terms for the safe return to in-person learning. "To be clear: Educators of this city want to be in buildings with their students," the union said on Twitter. "We believe that classrooms are where our children should be. But as the results tonight show, Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team have yet to provide safety for the overwhelming majority of schools."

Representatives from Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union did not respond to Yahoo Life's requests for comment.

Infectious disease experts said that in-person learning can be safe for students if the right precautions are taken. "In-person learning is critical for our students for many reasons and can be safe if a high-quality mitigation plan is designed and executed," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told Yahoo Life. "The most important interventions include maximizing vaccination of students, staff and teachers, mandatory use of high-quality, well-fitting masks, and optimizing ventilation."

But Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice-chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, told Yahoo Life that it's "hard to give a definitive answer" on whether in-person learning is safe right now, given the newness of the Omicron variant. "The virus is running rampant," he said. "We do not know a lot about its impact on kids, particularly unvaccinated kids. ... The teachers have an important point."

More than 700 teachers called out sick in Florida school district on 1st day back to class

Florida's Orange County Public Schools district faced a serious staffing challenge on Tuesday when 703 teachers took sick days on the first day back to school after the holiday break.

District spokesperson Michael Ollendorff told Yahoo Life that about 5 percent of the district's teachers were out sick. Luckily, help was available. "Support staff and our substitute providers covered those vacancies," he said.  

The district requires that all adults in school buildings wear face masks. Students are not required to wear masks "but are strongly encouraged to do so," the district said online. The district has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases since classes resumed, with 2,483 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in students alone between Jan. 3 and 6. (The district has more than 206,000 students enrolled.)

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Yahoo Life that large numbers of staff and students will likely be out of school in the coming weeks due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. "Omicron is highly contagious," he said. "Once it peaks — which will likely occur later this month, hopefully — we will then start to see a decline in cases."

Kleinman said that "there are going to be a lot of people who test positive" for COVID-19 this week and next week. And, as a result, he said, a lot of teachers and students will be out sick. "A lot of people got together over the holidays, and that's how the virus spreads," he explained.

Many big-name colleges and universities announce COVID booster mandate for students and staff

A slew of colleges and universities have added COVID-19 booster vaccine mandates as the Omicron variant of the virus spreads across the country. 

Rutgers University required that all faculty and staff upload proof of vaccination into a school portal by Tuesday. Those who are eligible to receive a booster shot need to share their documentation with school officials by the end of the month. "The data and the science surrounding the surge in COVID-19 cases, and the dramatic spread of the Omicron variant, require that we adapt to the evolving situation without sacrificing our goal of returning to a campus experience that is robust, rewarding and safe," wrote Antonio M. Calcado, Rutgers executive vice president and chief operating officer, in a letter to the school community earlier this week. "To do so, we are implementing appropriate contingency plans that rely on today’s best available information and expertise so that we may continue to manage the impact of this virus at the university."

Rutgers joins other colleges and universities that are requiring booster shots for students and staff.

"It is clear that a booster shot is needed for the highest degree of protection against Omicron," Russo said. "The majority of eligible Americans have not yet received this additional shot. Mandates will both expedite and maximize uptake of this important public health measure. Optimal vaccination is the most important tool for keeping our students, staff and faculty safe."

Kleinman agreed. "We've learned that full vaccination, coupled with a booster, provides much better protection than the two shots in the past without a booster," he said. "Booster mandates make sense, especially since college campuses are places where diseases can spread and where super-spreading is possible. Doing what we can to mitigate the likelihood of such spread and the impact of spread that occurs is important."

Watkins added, "What we are currently doing isn't working. For everyone opposed to mandates, I would like to know what their plan is instead."

Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools face a bus driver shortage

Families with students enrolled in Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools were left scrambling to try to get their kids to class on Wednesday after 90 bus routes were not serviced due to driver absences.

"Due to a higher-than-expected number of bus drivers calling out this morning, multiple routes are affected today, Wed. Jan. 5. Out of our 1,228 bus routes we are unable to service 90 bus routes," the district wrote on Twitter at 9 a.m. that day. "Families are encouraged to organize carpools or to walk in groups if possible," the district wrote online. "We apologize for this inconvenience and understand the difficulty this causes for families. Given these circumstances today we are working to better understand the problem and will provide further communication to let families know how we will solve this issue."

Families flooded the comments of the Twitter post, with many pointing out that this was predictable given the surge of COVID-19 cases in the state. Nearly 12,000 new COVID-19 cases were detected in the state, according to state data from Friday, and Maryland currently has a 28.3% percent positivity rate for COVID-19 tests. Maryland is currently under a 30-day state of emergency due to a rapid spike in hospitalizations from COVID cases. 

"Higher than expected? Do better, @mcps," one person wrote. "Grossly irresponsible and dangerous to send kids out in the cold, at an unfamiliar time, to wait for a bus that may or may not come," another said. "As a parent, I’m outraged that you didn’t cancel today - and honestly that you didn’t plan for a two week virtual period after winter break."

District officials did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Russo said these kinds of staffing shortages are expected to continue as COVID-19 cases surge. "The large number of COVID cases due to Omicron is creating staffing shortages in all lines of work and will continue to do so during this wave," he said. "The best means to protect our workforce during the Omicron wave, which will hopefully be short-lived, is to ensure optimal vaccination for all employees, including a booster if eligible, the use of high-quality well-fitting masks and the avoidance of high-risk behaviors both in and outside of the workplace."

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