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The challenges of trying to keep schools open during the omicron surge


The rapid spread of omicron is forcing some school districts to do what seemed pretty unthinkable just a few months ago, send students home and take school back online. NPR's Cory Turner joins us now to talk about all this. Hey, Cory.


MARTIN: Are we really back here, Cory? I mean, all these school closures have been happening over the last few weeks. Where exactly?

TURNER: Yeah. So we're looking at places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Louisville - are all virtual or have been, as well as a third of Baltimore schools. There's also Chicago, where teachers and city leaders appear to have resolved their standoff overnight over whether it's safe to learn in-person. Looks like students are set to return to class there on Wednesday. Closures are still fairly isolated and short, just a week or two. But honestly, Rachel, it wouldn't surprise me to see more. We have to remember that omicron was hitting its stride right as we hit the big holiday travel rush. I spoke with one elementary teacher in Louisville, Penelope Quesada, who said she supported the decision to go virtual for a week, but now she's worried about her students being home. You know, she told me school staff met online yesterday to prepare for this week of remote learning.

PENELOPE QUESADA: Man, I mean, nobody was smiling. Everybody had this like, traumatic face of, oh, my God. We're here. We're back again.

MARTIN: I mean, omicron, we know, is more transmissible than other variants. But it appears not to make people as sick, especially if you're vaccinated. And lots of pediatricians have been pretty forceful, saying kids are better off in school. So why is this happening?

TURNER: You know, in many cases, it really comes down to one word, staffing. So many teachers and bus drivers are out sick right now that districts just don't have enough adults. You know, making matters worse, Rachel, many communities are suffering from a very real shortage of substitute teachers. I spoke with Louisville Superintendent Marty Pollio yesterday, not long after he moved the district online for a week. And he told me that last week, he even sent staff from his district headquarters to cover for sick teachers.

MARTY POLLIO: But when you start like, on Thursday, it was over 600 uncovered classrooms in our district. It becomes really untenable at a certain point.

TURNER: And for context, Pollio estimated that that's roughly 10% of his classrooms that didn't have teachers. So you're looking at a lot of consolidating classes and asking folks to essentially be teachers who don't have any specific expertise.

MARTIN: Have schools gotten any better at just being more nimble, managing the big swings of all this?

TURNER: I think they're practiced at this art at this point, but there are also just limitations. And I think also, one really important thing has changed, which is the tone of all this. You know, I was talking to Dan Domenech yesterday. He talks to superintendents all the time as head of the National School Superintendents Association. And he told me he's heard something from a few superintendents personally that he's never heard before. And I should say this might be a little hard to hear.

DANIEL A DOMENECH: Superintendents calling me, telling me that they're ready to commit suicide. That - I've never, ever seen a period of time where I've had to deal with that.

MARTIN: Oh my gosh, Cory. I mean...


MARTIN: ...That's just amazing, awful to hear that school leaders would feel this way.

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, it's a pressure cooker right now, this debate around safe schooling. And school leaders and educators feel like whatever they do, they're going to make somebody angry. And that is a huge difference between now and, say, where we started this thing almost two years ago. If there is hope, though, it's that closures we're looking at will be brief, a matter of a week or two.

MARTIN: Yeah. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. We appreciate you, Cory. And if you or someone you know is having thoughts about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.