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  • The Omicron variant is causing stress and division among parents and students as many schools pivot back to remote learning and others remain open.
  • COVID-19 cases in children increased by 78% at the start of January, but most cases do not lead to severe illness.
  • Experts say schools are not the main drivers of the spread — most infections are happening in community settings at home.
  • While concern about safety remains, in-person learning is crucial for children’s well-being.

The return to school in January left many parents scrambling as the Omicron variant spread and many classes were promptly canceled.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a 55% increase in global COVID-19 cases the first week of January. In the United States, the first week of January saw COVID-19 cases in children increasing by 78%.

With New York City at the center of the spread, students at multiple schools staged a walkout on Jan. 11 in protest of the safety conditions in their classrooms. That same week, Chicago teachers agreed to return to school after a union-backed walkout over COVID-19 safety concerns.

With the spread of Omicron and school closures, many parents, students, and school staff are concerned about the safety of returning to school — but they’re also concerned about the issues that arise with a return to remote learning.

Amid these fears, experts say that schools are not the main driver of the spread.

“Even before vaccinations, schools were safe environments with mitigation procedures [such as] masks, testing, and ventilation,” Monica Gandhi, MD, MPH, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview with Psych Central.

“Schools were often safer than community-based settings because these mitigation procedures were in place,” she said.

Though COVID-19 can spread in any place where people gather, a 2021 study found no significant link between in-person schooling and higher SARS-CoV-2 infection rates in most regions of the country. Note, though, the study was conducted before the arrival of the Delta variant and vaccinations.

Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, MMSc, FSHEA, associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, said data from around the world shows that schools are not significant drivers of the spread.

“The explosion of Omicron cases occurred when schools were closed for winter break,” Branch-Elliman told Psych Central. “Most transmission occurs in the community and at home when people let their guard down.”

Can vaccines help?

Gandhi said schools became safer after children were eligible for vaccines. Children are low risk for severe disease, and teachers, who are essential workers, were given earlier access to the vaccine.

Students 12 years and older are eligible for COVID-19 booster shots, which research shows effectively protect against the Omicron variant.

A study of more than a million adults showed a 0.0033% chance of a COVID-19 related death among adults who received two vaccine doses. The study also indicates that the risk factors for severe outcomes increase for:

  • the immunosuppressed
  • people with underlying medical conditions
  • those 65 and older

About 67% of individuals ages 5 years and older are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And only 38% of the population has received a booster dose. Though children under age 5 are not eligible for the vaccine, Gandhi said the risk for severe illness is low.

“With all of this data, parents, teachers, and students should feel very safe returning to in-person learning, even during the Omicron surge,” Gandhi said. “Moreover, the ill effects of school closures are well documented, especially among low-income children, so we should not be closing schools at this stage in the pandemic.”

Though schools may not be a primary driver of the spread, it’s important for people to have the choice in remote learning.

“With schools, it’s important to consider the health of the staff, the students who are unable to get vaccinated, and what it takes to maintain a healthy balance of in-person education and socialization,” Peter Antall, chief medical officer at Brightline in California, told Psych Central.

While many parents prefer in-person learning to ensure their child’s education, others may need their child in school because they have to work. On the other hand, some parents might worry the risk of infection at school is too great and prefer to exercise caution.

“Children benefit from learning in an immersive and multi-model environment,” Antall said. “Verbal, visual, and tactile inputs are critical to learning for children and all ages.”

Many children have fallen behind in school because of remote learning and other pandemic-related disruptions.

Problems for children with disabilities

Research shows that children with developmental disabilities and chronic health conditions require more assistance with online learning than their peers.

“These children often need more attention from the teacher or an aide, may need physical assistance (with writing, for example), and may have challenges maintaining attention,” Antall said. “Learning in the home creates challenges in these and many other areas.”

Mental health effects

“COVID-19 is not the only outcome when considering the health and well-being of children. School closures have caused devastating and most likely long lasting harm to an entire generation of children,” said Branch-Elliman.

There has been a growing youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly among marginalized groups.

“Children and teens often express fear of COVID, worry about family members, and experience dark feelings of hopelessness, especially those who have lost family members or caregivers over the past few years,” Antall said.

The 2021 Monitoring the Future Survey shows that youth are experiencing mental health issues such as:

“Children are highly social by nature, and in-person socialization is an important part of normal child development,” Antall said.

If you’re feeling anxious about your child returning to in-person learning during the Omicron surge, consider focusing on what you can control, such as:

  • encouraging the use of masks
  • frequent handwashing and sanitizing
  • getting your child vaccinated if they’re eligible

If you have concerns about the safety protocols at your child’s school, you can contact them to ask:

  • about adequate spacing between desks
  • ventilation
  • whether they’re able to open windows for fresh air (weather permitting)

Here are a few recommendations to help your child’s mental health, which, in turn, could bring you some relief as well:

  • Teletherapy. Online therapy, or teletherapy, can provide support and relief for the whole family. For working parents, teletherapy can save time traveling to and from a therapist’s office.
  • Acknowledge your child’s fluctuating emotions. “It’s crucial as parents to maintain an open line of communication and provide validation to the complex and intense feelings your child is experiencing,” Antall said.
  • Provide encouragement. “Encouraging communication helps boost your child’s self-esteem and motivates them to try new activities independently of their friends at school,” Antall said.
  • Share your feelings, too. Parents can also share their own feelings, which helps normalize emotions as something we all experience and can talk about. As a result, children may feel more comfortable opening up.

Whether you favor in-person or remote learning for your child, concerns about school disruptions are warranted.

While you can’t control everything, you can follow the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines for parents and caregivers to help keep you and your family safe.