Chris Aguero knew he had to be prepared when his students returned to the classroom earlier this month after the American holiday season.
As the latest wave of coronavirus ravaged the country, the Texas principal was in no doubt that his school – deep in the heart of a state where vaccinations and masks are largely avoided – would be in jeopardy. He was right.
By the time the 130,000 schools in the United States opened their gates to kick-start the new year last week, the seven-day average of daily new cases in the United States had hit 480,273 infections. Among them were some of Aguero’s much needed teachers.
His solution to stop the staff shortage? Ask the parents to replace.
“When we returned, we certainly had a number of teachers and families who tested positive during the break itself who were not eligible to return with everyone else during the week of January 4,” he said. Aging and Sydney Morning Herald this week.
“It’s all about risk assessment for us, so in the absence of not really feeling comfortable bringing in outsiders whose activities and behaviors we do not really know or can guarantee, it made sense to approach our parent community.”
Like many educational leaders around the world, Aguero is now doing what he can to ensure schools remain open and minimize the contagious effects of the pandemic: staff shortages and burnout; tired families juggling work and home life; children who are desperate to learn and socialize.
In Massachusetts, dogs are being trained to sniff out COVID-19 in classrooms, cafeterias and gyms. If the presence of the virus is detected, the authorities inform the school nurse, who immediately informs the potentially infected.
In Washington DC, the local council is handing out quick antigen tests, with staff and students now having to present a negative result before returning to the classroom.
And in Texas, Aguero’s independent school, which takes care of elementary school students to year 8 students, is not the only one encouraging parents to help. Education officials in Hayes County, just south of Austin, recently posted a request on social media, sending an email to families asking them to consider filling out teachers.
Parents would still have to pass a criminal background check and make a brief briefing, but principals can use their discretion to waive a requirement to have at least 30 school hours before a class.
While the pandemic is forcing schools to innovate, the irritated debate over whether to keep classrooms open has also revealed new rifts between teachers, parents and governments – many of them in Democrat-led cities in line with US President Joe Biden.
After coming to the office and promising to “defeat” the virus, America under Biden’s watch now lacks coronavirus tests, about a third of the country remains unvaccinated, and countless buildings – including schools – are in desperate need of ventilation upgrades.
In fact, although the president told schools this month that they “can and should remain open,” data from Burbio, which tracks closures, showed at least 5,409 schools had canceled classes or switched to virtual learning for at least one day in the first week of January. more than triple the amount at the end of December.
Among them were schools in Chicago, the former footsteps of former U.S. President Barack Obama, where bitter opposition to COVID protocols resulted in classes being shut down for five days until they finally resumed on Wednesday.
In a dispute that escalated to national prominence, the Chicago Teachers Union accused city mayor Lori Lightfoot of not having an adequate COVID safe plan in place, and presented authorities with a list of requirements, including switching to distance education, if the COVID positivity rate exceeded certain metric thresholds.
But Lightfoot, a high-profile Democrat, retaliated, insisting that schools “are not the source of significant proliferation”, while warning the union that its decision to leave the job would “hurt hundreds of thousands of Chicago families who trust (the city’s public schools) for the daily needs of their education, for their nutrition, for their safety. “
In the midst of the struggle were thousands of parents: some sympathetic to the teachers’ case, others so outraged that they initiated lawsuits over what they claimed was an illegal strike that would exacerbate long-standing inequalities in the United States.
“Distance education was a catastrophic failure, especially for black students,” Natasha Dunn, a mother of three and a community activist, told CNN.
“So while we have people struggling to keep schools closed, no one is struggling to close the gaps that existed before the pandemic.”
School closures have been an integral part of the pandemic since March 2020, when all 50 states switched to distance education to mitigate the spread of what was then a new virus. But while some closures lasted for a few months, some areas, such as parts of California, continued with distance learning for more than a year.
In early 2021, as Americans began to be vaccinated and infections began to decline, experts cautiously predicted a return to normalcy. Then came Delta, with its first case registered in the US in March, followed by Omicron in December.
The recent rise has caused a political headache for Biden, who faces the same challenge that many of his colleagues face: balancing the need to keep admissions down with the need for society to learn to live with the virus.
But far from being able to control COVID, as Biden once promised, the United States now averages more than 700,000 new cases a day, as the Omicron variant accelerates the spread of the virus faster than at any earlier point in the pandemic.
And while Omicron appears to be causing less serious illness than previous strains, admissions have nonetheless risen more than 80 percent over the past two weeks, surpassing the previous record as well.
With midterm elections this year in which Democrats risk losing their slim majority in Congress, Republicans can smell blood. On Monday, the party’s House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and fellow Congressman James Comer even wrote to Democrats’ House Whip, James Clyburn, calling from an inquiry into Biden’s “failed” response.
After acknowledging that “we are all frustrated as we enter the new year”, Biden announced on Thursday that his administration would buy another 500 million home test kits and send them to people – doubling the 500 million that were committed before Christmas – and would make higher quality masks available for free, although it is not entirely clear how or when.
The White House also announced that it would increase the number of tests available to schools by 10 million a month, and urges districts to adopt the CDC’s “Test To Stay” guidelines, which mix contact tracking and serial testing. Under these rules, students who should otherwise be quarantined can remain in school with vigilance.
Back in Texas, Austin Jewish Academy principal Chris Aguero welcomes the effort, but points out that the decentralized system of American education means there is only so much the federal government can do – which is why schools like his using their own initiative.
Last year, the Austin Jewish Academy moved the classes outside, creating what he calls an “outdoor school.” Since 2020, everyone on campus has also been required to wear masks, although it takes an “adaptive approach” to what kind of masks to wear – cloth or KN95 – based on the level of infections in the community.
And in the wake of Delta and Omicron, the Academy has hired parents to close staff gaps. One parent recently spent two months filling out the school nurse; another recently replaced a class for two weeks while a teacher was absent; and another worked as a kindergarten substitute.
“The parents themselves are really grateful that we, as a small independent school here in Central Texas, are able to offer consistent personal education,” Aguero said.
“This pandemic has been exhausting for all of us. Sometimes you just have to have an innovative approach and be a little brave.”
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