With omicron’s rise, Americans brace for returning to school and work
By Audra D.S. Burch, Stephanie Saul, Edgar Sandoval and Mitch Smith
In two short weeks, as the year closed out, the omicron variant drove coronavirus case counts to record levels, upended air travel and left gaping staffing holes at police departments, firehouses and hospitals.
And that was at a time many people were off for the holiday season. Now comes Monday, with millions of Americans having traveled back home to start school and work again, and no one is sure of what comes next.
Most of the nation’s largest school districts have decided to forge ahead and remain open, at least for the time being, citing the toll that remote learning has taken on students’ mental health and academic success. And the rising number of cases has not yet been followed by a proportionate increase in hospitalizations and deaths, though hospitalizations have increased in recent days — a sign that the omicron variant seems to cause fewer cases of severe illness.
But the highly contagious variant is still racing across the country, and teachers, parents and workplaces are bracing for the impact.
“I figured that over these two weeks of break, everyone has been everywhere visiting everybody,” said Teresa Morrison, 48, who plans to keep her 8-year-old daughter Tristan, who suffers from severe bronchitis, from attending in-person classes in San Antonio. “So I really just anticipate January to be a disaster.”
The rapid spread of the omicron variant has left companies across industries — from meatpacking to retail — with a thinning workforce, especially after months of record-high resignations. Thousands of flights have been canceled, and National Guard troops have been activated to help staff hospitals.
The spiking case counts have also flummoxed the dozens of companies that sent their employees to work from home in March 2020 as COVID was first sweeping the country. Some offices that had reopened advised workers to stay home. Others, including major companies like Apple and Google, have extended their work-from-home arrangements.
In schools, the spread of COVID-19 has been limited, but omicron has renewed some fears just as a sense of normalcy seemed within reach.
For many teachers, students and parents, the fall semester had seemed promising. By mid-December, Brayden Boren, a high school English teacher in San Antonio, had begun to feel as if an end to the long, exhausting battle against the pandemic was within sight.
Then omicron arrived in Texas. By the week of Dec. 11, it accounted for about 25% of all new infections, according to state data. A week later, it spiked to 85%. In the past two weeks, the number of new cases being reported each day in Texas has increased by 240%.
Boren, 27, who has not had the virus, saw it all around him. “Even in my small, little friends group, they were popping up, one by one by one,” he said. “No one was really getting it until now.”
Now Boren is questioning whether a return to in-person learning makes any sense. “It’s a hard time to be a teacher. How far can we push ourselves?”
Health officials have warned that the unvaccinated remain most at risk of severe illness or death from omicron. More than 70% of people 12 and older in the United States are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one-quarter of children between ages 5 and 11 have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Children younger than 5 are still not eligible for them.
For business leaders, the constant change in public health conditions and guidelines has meant acclimating to a new level of flexibility. “They don’t give you a playbook at Harvard Business School on the pandemic,” said Yancey Spruill, CEO of the tech company DigitalOcean, which told its staff it will allow remote work indefinitely.
Across the country, workers were steeling themselves for months of disruptions to come.
“I’ve been working through most of the pandemic, and I hadn’t tested positive before omicron,” said Amelia Smoak, 29, who works at a restaurant and bar in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. She is fully vaccinated but recently recovered from a mild case of COVID. She added that business has gotten far slower as case counts rise: “Tips have been stable, but head count went down drastically.”
Scientists are projecting that the country’s sharp increase in cases will crest by the middle of January. But much about the new variant remains uncertain, and experts remain worried that hospitals might be overwhelmed.
The number of cases in New York continues to rise steeply, yet city school officials have vowed to keep schools open, embracing increased testing as an alternative to closing classrooms.
Schools in Chicago, Washington and most other major cities have announced they also plan to reopen this week, many with increased testing regimens. But some districts — including public schools in Cleveland; Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington; Newark, New Jersey; Mt. Vernon, New York; and Jersey City, New Jersey — will transition to remote learning for one week or more in January.
In Chicago, where businesses have remained open as cases have spiked to their highest levels of the pandemic, public school leaders said they planned to return to class as scheduled Monday despite concerns from the city’s powerful teachers union about safety precautions.
“If they shut down the restaurants, they shut down all the events, every component of the city and state, then, hey, I’m not going to put my families at risk; I’m not going to force them to take their children to school,” said Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. “But short of that, what is the logic of thinking that somehow shutting down schools is going to help this pandemic? I don’t see the logic.”
Chicago Teachers Union officials have criticized the district’s testing, ventilation and staffing plans, and they expressed concern about the potential for breakthrough cases among vaccinated employees.
Several Chicago-area colleges announced either delayed starts or shifts to remote learning, including DePaul University, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.
Similar announcements came from a number of major universities across the country, from the University of California system to New York University, Syracuse, and Binghamton in New York, bringing the number of U.S. colleges and universities announcing a move to remote instruction for part or all of January to nearly 50.
In Cleveland, parents had been bracing for possible remote instruction since the day before the winter break, when the district closed 14 of its 90 schools because faculty and staff members were out sick. The announcement came midweek that the 35,000-student district would begin its spring semester remotely, with Eric Gordon, the district’s CEO, citing a “dramatic increase” in the infection rate in Cleveland.
Ohio set records in recent days for both COVID infections and hospitalizations, prompting the state’s governor, Mike DeWine, a Republican, to mobilize additional members of the Ohio National Guard to help at hospitals — one of several states to do so.
For some parents, returning to work was the least of their worries.
Kelli Gay’s holiday season was halted abruptly with two phone calls in mid-December.
Both her husband and oldest son had been exposed to COVID-19 at separate holiday parties in Florida. It would not be long before the entire household — two parents and three children — tested positive for the virus, stunning them back to the reality of the pandemic’s enduring presence. All of them had been at least partly vaccinated.
“We were still wearing our masks, but we were reengaging with people and attended events,” said Gay, 45, a grants director at the Port of Miami who lost two relatives to COVID in 2020. “Then we got the phone calls.”
The test results precipitated a quiet Christmas, but Gay was faced with a bigger crisis: What to do with her three school-age children when school resumes Monday?
The school district where Gay lives in Miramar, Florida, where cases have shot up dramatically, is not offering virtual alternatives. And the state passed a law authorizing parents, rather than school districts, to decide whether their children wear a mask to school. That means her children can possibly be in classes with maskless students during this latest wave.
“High anxiety would be how I would describe what I am feeling,” she said. “So now our hopes are riding on enforcing the home rules, on the kids staying masked at school, keeping their distance and a little bottle of hand sanitizer in their backpacks.”