US schools delay openings as omicron rages; New York City hits 33% positivity rate

In other school districts, officials pressed on with
plans to reopen, including in hard-hit New York City, where one of every three
COVID-19 tests over the last week was positive for the virus, according to city
data released on Monday.

Nationwide, the country is averaging 18% of tests
coming back positive, according to the Mayo Clinic.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who took office over
the weekend, vowed to keep the nation’s largest school system open despite the
surging virus.

The city’s positivity rate was less than 3% a month
ago, and rising infections have hampered the transit system, closed Broadway
shows and forced businesses to delay office returns.

“We want to be extremely clear: the safest place
for our children is in a school building,” Adams said during a visit to an
elementary school in the Bronx. Only one public school, PS 58 in Brooklyn, was
closed on Monday due to lack of staff, a spokesperson for the city’s education
department said.

The speed of omicron’s spread has created a broadening
sense of chaos in the first few days of 2022. The number of new COVID-19 cases
has doubled in the last seven days to a record average of 418,000 a day, according
to a Reuters tally.

Cities including Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit
either implemented online instruction or cancelled school altogether this week
for tens of thousands of students, citing both staff shortages and omicron

In New Jersey, which has seen some of the highest case
rates in recent weeks, most urban school districts have implemented virtual
classes to start the new year, including Newark, the state’s biggest city.

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Anna Beale Smith, a mother of two in Atlanta, said she
supports the decision to switch the city’s public schools to remote learning
this week. But she said she was frustrated that the district only announced its
plans on Saturday, leaving some parents scrambling.

“I’ve been really disappointed and frustrated in
the lack of communication and the lack of clear planning,” said Smith, 41,
who works in healthcare.

Nationally, there are more than 2,750 school closures
so far this week, according to Burbio, a website that tracks school


The omicron variant appears to be far more contagious
than previous iterations, but data suggests it may be less virulent than Delta,
which swamped hospitals last year.

During the last week, the number of hospitalised COVID
patients rose 40%, up to 72% of the previous peak seen in January 2021,
according to the Reuters tally. US COVID-19 deaths have held fairly steady at
1,300 lives lost on average each day.

Still, the sheer number of cases has alarmed health
officials with hospital systems in many states already strained. Maryland, Ohio,
Delaware and Washington, DC, are all at or near record COVID-19 hospitalisation

Staffing shortages and a snowstorm moving through the
eastern United States created further travel woes, with more than 4,400 flights
cancelled on Monday worldwide, including nearly 3,000 US flights, according to
the tracking website FlightAware.

A number of businesses, including several major US
banks, have encouraged staff to work from home during the first few weeks of
the year.

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In Washington, the Smithsonian said several museums
would either close or have reduced hours for at least 12 days starting on
Wednesday due to “unprecedented staff shortages.”

Some school systems are using testing to try to stave
off further delays. In Washington, DC, all staff and 51,000 public school
students must upload a negative test result to the district’s website before
coming to class on Wednesday.

Similar efforts are underway in California, which
pledged to provide free home-test kits to all its 6 million K-12 public school

“There’s a lot of COVID out there … it’s going
to be a bumpy start,” said Michelle Smith McDonald, director of
communications for the Alameda County Office of Education.

The full impact of the omicron surge on the country’s
school districts may not be clear until next week, as parents and
administrators struggle to implement changing guidance from healthcare

The US Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorised
use of a third dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children
ages 12 to 15, and narrowed the interval for booster eligibility to five months
from six for those who received the Pfizer shots.

In Boston, the school system distributed 55,000 tests
to students ahead of the winter break. Schools are still scheduled to open on
Tuesday, though the superintendent of schools, Brenda Cassellius, told
reporters on Monday she anticipates omicron-related staff shortages.

“If I have to go out and teach in a classroom,
I’m going to do that,” she said.

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