Cardona Calls to Keep Schools Open as Omicron Advances

As hysteria mounts around the potential for another round of mass school closures due to the highly contagious omicron variant, the Biden administration is making sure the messaging is clear: Keep the schools open.

“Let me be very clear: Student safety and staff safety is the No. 1 priority. But yes, our children need to be in school,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a Tuesday morning interview on CNN.

“We know how to keep them safe, we have a year’s worth of experiences, we have vaccination efforts happening for children ages 5 and up,” he says. “Our children deserve five days a week in person learning instruction, and that's what I expect to see.”

His remarks come as the number of school disruptions tick upward, due to both the new COVID-19 variant as well as educator and staff shortages. Burbio, an organization that tracks school responses to the pandemic, has found roughly 650 instances of temporary school closures or pivots back to virtual learning – nearly double the number from the previous week. And the organization is already tracking more than 400 instances of schools returning to virtual beginning the week of Jan. 2.

The vast majority of schools remain open full time for in-person learning, and evidence shows schools remain one of the safest spaces for children in terms of the risk of transmission. But they’re also now one of the most vulnerable spaces, given that vaccination rates among children remain low. As it stands, 18% of kids ages 5 to 11 have at least one shot, as do 61% of children aged 12 to 17, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but the vaccination rate for children has dramatically slowed.

And while the risk remains low for children to develop serious infections, the new variant is already driving up infections in the age group. More than 164,000 coronavirus cases in children were reported the week beginning Dec. 6 – a jump of nearly 24% over the previous week, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. The groups called this number “extremely high.”

Cardona’s remarks came just hours before President Joe Biden was set to tell the U.S. that breakthrough cases among vaccinated people will increase as the highly transmissible omicron continues to spread but that unvaccinated people remain at a much higher risk of getting severely ill and dying from the coronavirus.

Cardona’s announcement is just the latest attempt by the Biden administration to emphasize how much they want schools to remain open. Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky endorsed test-to-stay policies and Cardona urged school districts to use federal coronavirus aid to fend off teacher and staff shortages.

“As we move forward and we learn how to thrive during a pandemic, we have to evolve our thinking and make sure that we are being led by science and ultimately making sure our students and staff are safe,” Cardona said this morning. “I do think we are going to continue to learn more about how to get our students back in school quicker and safer and we should take every effort to limit quarantine where possible.”