US schools delay openings as Omicron pushes pandemic to record highs

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Us Schools Delay Openings As Omicron Pushes Pandemic To Record Highs Us Schools Delay Openings As Omicron Pushes Pandemic To Record Highs
Some school systems are using testing to try to stave off further delays. Photo: Getty Images
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By Joseph Ax and Lisa Shumaker, Reuters

Thousands of United States schools have delayed this week's scheduled return to classrooms following the holiday break or switched to remote learning, as the Omicron variant drives record levels of Covid-19.

In New Jersey, which has seen some of the highest case rates of any state in recent weeks, most urban districts have implemented virtual classes to start the new year, including Newark, which has nearly 38,000 students.

Milwaukee's public school system announced on Sunday that its more than 70,000 students would switch to virtual learning on Tuesday due to a rise in Covid infections among staff members. Cleveland's schools have also gone remote, while Detroit cancelled classes through Wednesday.

The school disruptions, which left many parents scrambling to find child care, have added to a broadening sense of chaos in the first few days of 2022. The number of new Covid-19 cases has doubled in the last seven days to an average of 418,000 a day, according to a Reuters tally.

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The Omicron variant appears to be far more contagious than previous iterations, but data suggests it may be less virulent than Delta, which swamped hospitals last year.

Bumpy start

During the last week, the number of hospitalised Covid patients rose 40 per cent and is now at 72 per cent of the previous peak seen in January 2021, according to the Reuters tally.

US Covid-19 deaths have fluctuated due to delays in reporting over the holidays but have held fairly steady at 1,300 lives lost on average each day.

Still, the sheer number of cases has alarmed health officials with hospital systems in many states already strained. Maryland, Ohio, Delaware and Washington DC, are all at or near record Covid-19 hospitalisation rates.

Around the world, more than 3,400 flights had been cancelled on Monday, more than half US flights, according to the tracking website FlightAware. A snowstorm moving through the eastern United States was responsible for at least some of the cancellations.

Some school systems are using testing to try to stave off further delays. In Washington DC, all staff and 51,000 public school students must upload a negative test result to the district's website before coming to class on Wednesday. Parents can pick up rapid tests at their school or use their own.

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There's a lot of Covid out there ... it's going to be a bumpy start

Similar efforts are underway in California, which pledged to provide free home-test kits to all its six million K-12 public school students.

"There's a lot of Covid out there ... it's going to be a bumpy start," said Michelle Smith McDonald, director of communications and public affairs for the Alameda County Office of Education.

The full impact of the Omicron surge on the country's school districts may not be clear until next week. Already parents and administrators are struggling to implement changing guidance and figure out how many shots staff and older teenage students need to be considered fully vaccinated.

The US Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorised use of a third dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, and narrowed the time for all booster shots by a month to five months after the primary doses.

A challenge

Asked if schools are going to be open in his state and whether that will create problems, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told Reuters: "The answer to both is yes."

"We have to go back to school, but at the same time we recognise that it's going to be a challenge, and we're likely to see the cases in the schools go up," Mr Hutchinson, a Republican, added.

New York City schools, the largest district in the country, reopened as planned on Monday but with more testing for its nearly one million students. Instead of quarantining an entire classroom if one person tests positive, all students in the class will be given rapid at-home tests to use over the next seven days.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who took office over the weekend, visited an elementary school in the Bronx on Monday and told reporters that the city's schools would remain open.

"We want to be extremely clear: the safest place for our children is in a school building," he said.

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