The beginning of the second semester in K-12 education has been halted, adjusted, and left in uncertainty in many of the United States’ biggest public schools. In a public response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, many districts have cited disease-related staff shortages necessitating a repeat of the virtual learning environments in spring of 2020.
Even before the Omicron variant arrived in stride, school closures had already been trending upward. Bloomberg reported that, prior to the holidays, closures had increased by 82%, largely as a result of schools breaking early or (allegedly) briefly shifting to virtual learning.
However, as more cases of the Omicron variant emerge, the pace of January closings intensifies. Districts throughout the nation have announced closures or shifts to remote learning — some for as long as two weeks. The following districts are among them, though so many districts are reinstituting measures that it is impossible to account for all of them.
-Jersey City, New Jersey
-Newark, New Jersey
Meanwhile, teachers unions around the country are making an eleventh hour push to shut schools down. The Arlington Education Association sent a letter demanding that districts either drastically expand testing or move remote until Jan. 18. The letter was quickly criticized for its rushed and sloppy nature by local parents. The Chicago Teachers Union is threatening a strike if their desires for a remote learning period are not met.
Perhaps most notably, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Massachusetts urged the state to return to remote learning.
“Massachusetts public school students and their families have struggled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the COVID pandemic for two years. They have the right to know that after the holiday break they are returning to safe schools. Given the ever-increasing infection rate and the virulent behavior of the current COVID strain, we know they will not,” Beth Kontos, the president of the Massachusetts AFT, said in a statement.
Large bipartisan groups of parents, policy-makers, education-policy experts, mental health leaders have voiced serious concerns with another shift to virtual learning. Several of these concerns include the Omicron variant’s high rate of transmission but low medical impact, the record-breaking learning loss of 2020, and the high rates of student suicides.
Most concerning to many parents in the inner-city districts of the nation are its disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic students. In a startling trend in Georgia, districts like Rockdale, Atlanta, Clayton, and DeKalb are moving to immediate virtual periods while upper-class, predominantly liberal, white areas are continuing in-person instruction.
Notably, school systems in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, and East St. Louis have moved to immediately return to virtual instruction despite the low-income families’ lack of access to basic infrastructure. Additionally, some of these districts had the highest numbers of absences and “student disappearances” during virtual periods in 2020.
New Jersey is the state arguably most affected by the recent wave of school closures, as 45 districts within the state have announced closures lasting multiple days. In more than half of these districts, the majority of the student population is economically disadvantaged. Economically disadvantaged students also constitute a sizable minority in several more districts that have announced closures. The situation in Patterson is particularly severe, as nearly a quarter of students are learning English, and more than 15% have special needs.
Strangely, the unions and public school communications departments that cited CDC guidelines for initial closures and virtual mandates have issued either casual dismissals or entirely separate reasons for ignoring current CDC guidelines. Union representatives like Phillip Cantor from the Chicago Teachers Union cited the pandemic as “exposing more racism. We need remote learning for equity and safety for all our students.”
Erin Einhorn from NBC News cited 4.4 million student test scores indicating that black and Hispanic students, as well as low-income students took massive hits in reading and math. The Chicago Teachers Union refused to comment on either Phillip’s comment or the study from NBC.
Characterizing the actions of teachers unions based on his reports of the Chicago Public Schools and the CTU, Corey DeAngelis suggests:
“They’re ready to hold children’s education hostage again. Doing so allows them to go to the beach (like we saw with their board member last year) and to put themselves in a better bargaining position to secure more ransom payments from taxpayers.”
At this time, no public school systems that have made the move to virtual learning have provided special assistance for low-income families, disproportionately affected minority-students, or plans to address the incoming learning loss. Furthermore, no public unions advocating for strikes have released any statements about helping those in ineffective learning environments.