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The rapidly spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus has upended the holiday season for many Texans and forced the cancellations of thousands of flights.
It has also prompted school districts in the Northeast and Midwest to take measures like limiting winter sports activities and temporarily returning to remote learning, though that is not the case in Texas, where the state government has prohibited school districts from requiring that teachers and students be vaccinated or wear masks. (Many districts are defying the mask mandate prohibition.) For now, schools are largely sticking to what they already have been doing to control the virus’s spread.
Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.
The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.
At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”
Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.
Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.
“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”
In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.
In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.
“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.
She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.
In San Antonio, Northside ISD will continue to follow the COVID-19 protocols it established earlier this year such as allowing nurses to test students and following quarantine protocols for those who have tested positive.
For Fort Worth ISD, the plan is to open up as normal unless told otherwise by local or state officials. Throughout the next week, the district will look to reinforce its pandemic protocols such as making masks and hand sanitizer available on all campuses. The district also deep-cleans its buildings, sanitizing areas where children tend to touch the most, such as water fountains, table tops, doorknobs and their classrooms.
“It’s a big effort,” said Claudia Garibay, a Fort Worth ISD spokesperson.