OPINION: Even With Omicron, the Safest Place for Kids Is Still a School Building

by Pete Pachal
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To the Editors:

Our kids need to be back in the classroom. SOMSD needs to end virtual school, fully commit to in-person learning, and adopt CDC-backed policies so fewer school days are lost to this pandemic.

The COVID landscape looks much different here in the first week of January 2022 than it did mere weeks ago. With new guidance from the CDC on quarantines and testing, the rise of the Omicron variant, and a temporary return to virtual instruction in South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD), there are conflicting signals about the best way schools and parents should respond to a rapidly evolving pandemic.

I am part of the leadership of SOMA for a Safe Return to School, a group born in the waning months of 2020 with the goal of ensuring kids in SOMSD can safely attend school in person. The group, which now has more than 900 members, is advocating for the immediate re-opening of our schools for in-person learning. We also want the district to adopt CDC-endorsed policies that can help kids stay in classrooms, including Test-to-Stay (a program that replaces close-contact quarantines of unvaccinated students with daily testing) and more reasonable quarantine timeframes (the district currently requires 14 days, with no option to test out). 

We believe these are the right policies, even given recent developments. Here’s why.

Our group’s primary goal remains to keep kids in school because that’s the best and safest place for them to learn, to interact with their peers, and to develop socially. While the world has been reeling from this pandemic for almost two years, thankfully the virus has posed only a very minor risk to children (apparent from any breakdown of hospitalizations or deaths by age group). For children, COVID’s severity is comparable to the flu — a disease we do not reorient society around preventing.

COVID is of course very contagious, and extremely so in the latest variant, Omicron. Even given this highly transmissible new strain, however, there are three major factors that favor keeping kids in schools (besides the extremely low risk to children):

  1. Every adult in a school building in SOMSD has either been mandated to receive a vaccine (the vast majority) or has had the opportunity since spring 2021. While vaccination has proven to not be very effective against contracting the virus, it is a significant factor in preventing the disease’s severity.
  2. There is no evidence in-school transmission is happening in SOMSD, even with the rise in cases, something the district stated in its December announcement. Governor Murphy said this week that “The number of outbreaks directly traced to in-school activities have remained below where we would have anticipated,” citing statistics from the NJ Department of Health. That also aligns with the CDC’s own guidance about the rarity of transmission in schools. In addition, the recent rise in recorded cases in SOMSD correlates to an increase in testing, which is likely identifying more asymptomatic cases and false positives.
  3. As more data on the Omicron variant is gathered, the emerging consensus is that it results in milder symptoms, and reduced danger of hospitalization or death. Even as cases are rising to record levels all over the country, deaths from the virus have remained flat.

All of this suggests rising COVID case counts should not be as much of a concern as they were earlier in the pandemic — a point of view shared by a growing number of health officials, infectious disease experts, and even the president. And, as ever, that concern over risk associated with the disease needs to be balanced against the now very clear and indisputable costs of virtual instruction.

As everyone in this group knows, virtual instruction (the term is deliberate; it is instruction, not learning) is a feeble substitute for going to school in person, a perspective supported by reports, data, and innumerable first-hand accounts. Academic performance, mental health, social development, physical exercise — they’re all made worse by virtual school, sometimes severely.

While that’s been true throughout the pandemic, what’s different now is the burden that virtual instruction puts on students and families is being properly considered in discussions about public health decisions. It’s our goal to ensure this is also the case in SOMSD. Outside of individual quarantines, virtual instruction should only be considered in a clear — and formally declared — emergency.

That’s why, in addition to strongly objecting to this most recent shutdown, this group will continue to advocate for sensible policies like Test-to-Stay and shorter quarantines (both endorsed by the CDC), even in the wake of Omicron. As advocates, it’s our role to push forward the adoption of proven policies that will help achieve our goal of ensuring kids can attend school in-person. Importantly, it is not our role to figure out logistics; that falls on the district.

The fact is the pandemic in January 2022 is not the same as it was in March 2020 or even September 2021. When evaluating the current risk using the best available data — and balancing that risk against the real harm that virtual instruction inflicts on students and families — we strongly believe the best, wisest, and safest choice is to keep kids in school.

Pete Pachal is a SOMA parent and co-leader of the SOMA for Safe Return to School advocacy group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/somasrs

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