How Are Philadelphia Schools Handling the Omicron Surge?
As of January 18th, 2022, there are 67,700,000 Covid-19 cases in the United States (that we know of). Infection rates have reached an all-time high—double the past surges. Federal lockdowns have slowly faded into the past, and the responsibility of dealing with this deadly disease has fallen into the hands of regular citizens.
On January 20th, 2022, two years will have passed since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the United States. Divisions have formed in every state. Schools next to each other might have one closed and the other open. A city could be rampant with infections, but its suburb nearly devoid of them. Institutions have been left to fend for themselves.
The schools of Philadelphia have fallen into this trend. In some schools, masks still are not required, and students walk around without taking COVID-19 precautions; however, this appears to be the minority. On January 14th, it was reported that 102 schools in Philadelphia were closed due to COVID-19 cases. A large majority of these schools are moving back to virtual learning, such as over Zoom. A few schools will have teachers instructing virtually from their classrooms, but with many of their students Zooming in from home. Central Bucks High School was among one of the schools that suddenly closed due to cases, and with a student population of over 1,700, it might be assumed that this was due to student transmission. But student cases have become disregarded, as Philadelphia schools contend that their largely impoverished student population needs the care, food, and protection they provide. As such, every COVID-19 closure so far has been due to staff cases, where so many teachers were out sick that their school simply could not function. These schools stayed open until the last possible moment, operating with barely enough staff. On the 13th, Teamsters Local 502 CASA, a school administrators’ union, tweeted out in concern that, “A Northeast Philadelphia high school had 60-70 staff members out daily last week. 39 on Tuesday. The integrity of the academic program cannot withstand this. Nurses are backlogged with cases. Student attendance is down. #phled #phledcovidstories”
The lack of worry towards student cases has elicited a variety of reactions, ranging from relief to anger. The recent guidance given by the Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia states that schools should not ask asymptomatic students to get tested, even if they have been directly exposed, in order to leave tests available for the symptomatic and keep schools open. The threshold of cases needed to close schools has gone from 3% of staff and students being infected to 10%, with some schools planning not to close no matter the number of student cases. There has been no guidance on how to handle students who are immunocompromised or who live with vulnerable family members.
The fact is, predicting the future of COVID-19 in schools is impossible. The new radical plan of opening schools no matter the student rates will eventually show its results in the recorded COVID cases of 2022 and onward. School boards are left asking themselves if they would rather deal with an open-school infected student body or a struggling virtual student body. In this unpredictable and ever-changing time, the answer does not come easy.