Schools across the tri-state area are scrambling to figure out how to safely open after Christmas break amid an Omicron surge — and some are already planning to go virtual in early January.
The Paterson, New Jersey, School District announced Wednesday that learning will be entirely virtual for students and staff from Jan 4. to Jan. 18 following a spike in cases. The 4th-largest district in the Garden State already switched two high schools to virtual learning.
“The rising numbers of COVID-19 cases due to multiple variants are cause for concern for all of us. ” Paterson Superintendent Eileen F. Shafer said in a statement. “A surge of new cases has occurred in northeastern New Jersey, and it is expected that the trend will continue through the holiday break.”
New Jersey reported 9,711 new cases on Wednesday, an all-time high, according to Governor Phil Murphy’s office.
New York City’s Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said Saturday that schools should immediately return to remote learning as the Omicron sweeps the city, calling it a “no brainer” in preparation for Christmas. The three New York City schools that closed in one day last week are among the 835 K-12 public schools that closed last week, according to the tracking site Burbio.
Some schools in the Tri-State area will be looking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new “test to stay” approach introduced last week. The agency said that unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 can remain in school if they undergo testing — a stark change from previous policy the required unvaxxed students to quarantine for 10 days after exposure.
New Jersey revised its guidance last week cutting down the student quarantine time to seven days if they produce a negative test between the fifth and seventh day.
The state also plans to pilot a “test to stay” model in some schools, working with school nurses to establish programs, according to NJ.com. The programs are being used in some states already, and are meant to keep kids in school instead of forcing them into lengthy quarantine.
But “test to stay,” which will likely rely heavily on rapid tests, is no panacea.
Rapid tests are “good, not great” for early detection, said Kara Cannon, the operations manager of Enzo Clinical Labs, which runs dozens of labs in the Tri-State area that do Covid testing.
“Early on when you’re not showing symptoms, you likely don’t have a lot of virus in your system, and rapid tests can’t pick up those low levels of virus,” Cannon said. PCR tests, which required a lab to process and are considered the “gold-standard,” are able to see smaller amounts of virus.
“If you have symptoms, a rapid test will probably pick it up, but for kids in schools who were maybe just exposed to a friends, that’s where I’d say the rapid test may not be the best way.”
Still, Cannon said, “at the end of the day, any kind of preventative measure is going to help us” — and these are the type of tough decisions schools are having to weigh once again as Omicron shatters state records in new recorded cases.
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Oswego City School District closed its door to students this week and went remote with a large group staff and students out sick and in quarantine.
The district superintendent has said kids will back in school at the start of the New Year — especially if he can get his hands on rapid tests.