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Hard lessons as U.S. schools revamp return from holidays

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Many U.S. schools that would normally welcome students back to classrooms on Monday are delaying their start dates, scrambling to test pupils and teachers and preparing, as a last resort, to return to remote learning as record COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant sweep the country.

In Washington, D.C., 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. Tests administered before Tuesday will not be accepted. Parents can pick up rapid tests at their school or use their own.

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

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

New COVID cases have hit record levels of 400,000 new infections a day on average due to the extremely transmissible nature of the Omicron variant. Health experts predict even more people will test positive following holiday gatherings, leading to millions of people in quarantine and isolation in the coming weeks.

Schools from Massachusetts to Michigan to Washington state were delaying classes a few days and asking students and staff to use that time to get tested for COVID.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has said shutting schools in the state should be only a last resort. But school administrators are worried about having enough teachers and other staff.

“There will probably be individual school closures, whether due to an outbreak, or not enough staff,” McDonald said.

In line with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the state has shortened its quarantine period for those exposed to someone with COVID or testing positive for COVID to five days from 10.

Scientists and health experts are concerned the policy fails to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, who recover from the virus at different rates. It also does not require testing to confirm that a person is no longer infectious before they end their quarantine.

California has recommended people have a negative COVID test before leaving isolation. Other states such as Illinois have not adopted the new CDC guidelines.

Asked about the confusion around testing, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that the CDC will soon clarify whether people with COVID-19 should test negative to leave isolation.

The extent of the Omicron surge on the country’s school districts probably will not be clear until next week. Already parents and administrators are struggling to implement changing guidance and figure out how many shots staff and older teenage students need to be considered fully vaccinated. This is the third school year disrupted by COVID, which has not only set students back academically but socially as well.

While early data suggests Omicron is less severe than previous coronavirus variants, Fauci warned hospitalizations could surge because of how quickly it spreads.

In just over three weeks, the number of hospitalized COVID patients rose 50% nationwide and COVID hospitalizations are at 70% of the previous peak in January 2021, according to a tally. Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C., have more COVID patients hospitalized than at any other point in the pandemic. Delaware and Ohio have sent National Guard troops to hospitals to try to help with the surge.

New York City schools, the largest district in the country, are reopening as planned on Monday but with more testing for its nearly 1 million students. And instead of quarantining an entire classroom if one person tests positive, all students in the class will be given rapid at-home tests to use over the next seven days.

New York City Major Eric Adams told parents to “fear not” as they sent their children back to school.

“The safest place for children is inside a school. The number of transmissions is low,” he told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir in San Francisco and Joe Shaw in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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