How Can Schools Prepare for the Spread of the Omicron Variant?

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Infectious Disease Expert Shares Insight on How the Omicron Variant's Spread Could Affect Schools and In-Person Instruction

The Covid-19 omicron variant continues to surge across the country, leaving many with questions on keeping their families safe as students return to in-person classes after winter break. Amira Roess, professor in the Department of Global and Community Health, addresses common questions regarding the spread, health risks, and staffing shortages that the omicron variant poses on school systems.

1. How can schools best prep for the spread of the omicron variant? 

All adults need to model good mask usage behavior. Anyone who is eligible and unvaccinated needs to get vaccinated. The hospitals are struggling under the strain posed by the surge in severe cases, primarily among unvaccinated individuals. This means that those of us who have non-COVID medical crises or injuries or get into accidents are going to continue to face problems getting emergency care. We really need to consider the greater ramifications of our actions.

2. Are school-aged students more at risk if they attend school in person?

School-age students will be more likely to become infected at school. However, vaccinated students and most healthy children will have mild symptoms or will be asymptomatic. One issue we are facing is that among unvaccinated children, the rate of severe illness is significantly higher than among vaccinated children. While the rates are low overall, the sheer number is starting to increase as more children become infected.

3. What do you think is the biggest challenge for school districts who are gearing up for in-person instruction amid the omicron virus surge?

Enforcing mask usage is challenging. Schools should require disposable high-quality masks. I've been around children who wear cloth masks that do not fit them well, haven't been washed in a long time, and don't have any filters. This is extremely problematic.

4. Do you think in-person instruction would lead to more staff shortages in schools?

Many schools are facing staff shortages because staff are infected and need to isolate. In-person instruction will likely lead to significant increases in both staff and children becoming infected.

5. In New York City, only the student/or staff member who tests positive will have to quarantine at home. The rest of the class will be able to return to the classroom. Do you think this plan is effective?

It will be very important to keep anyone symptomatic out of schools. In addition, asymptomatic individuals who test positive should also stay out of schools. If we want to avoid transmission in schools then schools will need to test students and staff on a regular basis, and that will be challenging.