Despite omicron, most schools are staying open after the holidays As coronavirus cases and pediatric hospitalizations surge in the U.S., the majority of U.S. schools are staying open for in-person learning.

Officials are determined to keep schools open, despite omicron

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today the FDA authorized COVID booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15. The decision comes as many children are heading back to school after the holidays. Parents and school districts across the country are grappling with decisions about how to balance education with the surge in COVID cases driven by the omicron variant. Now here to talk more about the latest developments are NPR's Joe Palca and Anya Kamenetz. Welcome to you both.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thank you.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: I want to start with you, Joe, about what the FDA is trying to accomplish by extending boosters to children as young as 12.

PALCA: Well, the FDA is really pulling out all the stops because of omicron. They'd like to figure out anything they can to help blunt its march across the country. But the booster is likely only to have a modest impact on preventing transmission of disease. I spoke to Flor Munoz. She's a pediatric infectious disease physician at Texas Children's Hospital. She was actually in the vaccine clinic when I spoke with her, and I asked her about the impact she thought boosters would have for children 12 to 15.

FLOR MUNOZ: I think the hope is that it will prevent severe disease. I think that we don't really expect that there will be a prevention of transmission or even a prevention of infection altogether.

PALCA: So kids that age will be eligible for a booster five months after completing the initial round. And remember; the authorization for kids this age came last May. So many children are five months out.

CORNISH: I want to ask also about children younger than 12. What's going on there?

PALCA: Yeah. The FDA authorized a third dose for children 5 to 11 with immunodeficiencies. Now, that's not really considered a booster, just the number of vaccines needed to get an initial adequate immune response for immunocompromised children that age. But they are authorizing a third dose for children who aren't immunocompromised. And you have to remember that vaccines for children 5 to 11 were only authorized in November. I spoke with Yvonne Maldonado, professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University.

YVONNE MALDONADO: It would be great, actually, if we could vaccinate all kids 6 months and older and boost the younger kids as well, but we don't have the data for those kids.

PALCA: Now, there was some news recently that two shots of the Pfizer vaccine did not seem to generate a good response in children 2 to 4. So they're studying a third dose for those children - again, not a booster, just a normal schedule requiring three shots. And there's also data showing that children 6 months to 2 years might only need two shots.

CORNISH: I want to bring in Anya Kamenetz in a moment. But first, Joe, I understand the FDA has shortened the amount of time between kind of vaccination and booster for folks over the age of 12. Can you give us a little clarification on that?

PALCA: Well, clarification - sort of. The agency says it has - now has good data for that age group, and five months is an adequate interval. But it's left a pretty complicated playing field. If you listen to Janet Woodcock, she described it at a press conference. She's the acting commissioner of FDA.

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JANET WOODCOCK: If you got J&J, you get a booster after two months. If you got Pfizer as your primary series, you can get a booster at five months. If you got Moderna, you could get a booster at six months or beyond.

PALCA: So, again, the idea here is trying to make sure parents stay healthy and don't transmit the virus to their kids and vice versa.

CORNISH: Anya, here's where school districts have to kind of parse this information and data as well, right? I mean, how are they responding to this surge with this variant, omicron, as students are returning from winter break?

KAMENETZ: So at least 2,750 schools around the country have gone virtual this week, most for one week, some for even two weeks. And those are concentrated in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. And that's according to the latest from Burbio, a website that tracks what schools are doing. That includes dozens of district-wide closures. Of course, Audie, if you do the math, that means the vast majority of school leaders around the country are keeping classrooms open but not without some uncertainty and some tension right now.

CORNISH: What does that tension look like?

KAMENETZ: So in Chicago and New York City, for example, teacher unions are really pushing to up safety measures. Chicago's teacher union met last night virtually, and they are going to vote on whether to begin teaching remotely Wednesday without the city's permission. And in New York City, you know, the health department is currently reporting about 31,000 cases a day here. This is the largest school district in the country. Parents are really wondering, is it safe to send their kids to school? They're texting each other, posting on Facebook, are you sending your kids to school?

And the head of the city's teacher union, Michael Mulgrew, advised the mayor that a temporary return to remote would be the safest course, but it was no dice. This is Mayor Eric Adams. He took office January 1, and he started his first Monday in office with a press conference held outdoors at an elementary school in the Bronx. And with his very first words, he underlined, you know, the safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open.

CORNISH: Let's take this beyond New York City for a moment. How are other school districts handling it?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So schools are increasingly relying on rapid tests not only to find cases but to keep children in school after an exposure. And that's the protocol the CDC calls test-to-stay. So California announced they're sending out 6 million rapid tests to schools; New York state, 3 to 3.5 million; Connecticut, 2 million; Massachusetts, around 227,000. But that's one batch. You know, they're going to need a steady supply of these tests going forward.

Then we're hearing in places like Los Angeles County about upgrading masks, at least for staff. But on the other hand, Burbio says more than a third of the country's biggest districts don't require masks at all. And even when there are mask mandates, two enduring concerns right now are lunchtime and high school athletics, especially when there's spectators.

So with all of this, Audie, the real possibility is that as omicron rips through, staff will be calling out sick. And that's going to close schools unpredictably with these rolling closures rather than superintendents or mayors actually making the call to go remote.

CORNISH: And, Joe Palca, can school districts soon rely on boosters - right? - to be kind of another tool in the kit here?

PALCA: Yeah. That's the way to think of it - another tool. But it's not going to solve the problem. And these boosters aren't going to be available at least for a few days anyway because there's an advisory committee to the CDC that's going to meet on Wednesday. And it'll be after that most likely that the CDC's recommendation for who should get these boosters will come out. I talked with Yvonne Maldonado about this, and she says boosters will help. But what would be really helpful is an at-home COVID test that kids could take every morning.

MALDONADO: Just a simple little swab and just check and see if the child's infected or not. And then they can go to school feeling safe, and everyone else around them can feel safe as well.

PALCA: And as Anya said, there's a lot of these tests going to schools, but it's not enough right now. Maybe there will be soon.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joe Palca and Anya Kamenetz. Thank you both for this reporting.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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