Omicron: what could schools have done differently, and what can we adjust for the future?

Cash Mendenhall

We’re coming back now from the onset of a week of remote school, a callback to last year, and a chaotic end to the second quarter. The week prior to our shutdown, many conversations at West revolved around our policy and safety as a community as we watched cases climb to heights unimagined even last year. The surge, fueled primarily by the rapid spread of the Omicron and, to a lesser extent, Delta variants, was obviously not preventable by any school policy. Infection rates spiked so dramatically that almost every public institution was overwhelmed. The national case ceiling on January 15th reported a daily average of 805,000 cases, well more than tripling the prior high in January of 2021. Salt Lake County alone is reporting a daily average of 3,000 cases, and the New York Times ranks Utah as the seventh-most dangerous state for COVID in the nation. But such frightening statistics aren’t the baseline, and they were the result of vacillation, indecision, and badly prepared contingency plans at the national, state, and local levels across the country. Schools were on the frontline, with many like West eventually shutting down and many more serving as hotbeds for COVID cases early in the Omicron spike. Shutdowns from Boston to Chicago to California have left an exhausted education system scrambling to keep up with unrelenting caseloads. The question of what we could have done differently, and what we can adjust to be better prepared in the future, is a pressing one.


Much of the frequent issues brought up with school closures existed far before Omicron, and likely will long after, requiring considerable altercations to our federal education structure and a greater emphasis on funding in order to fully be fixed. Schools are facing a pandemic labor shortage as severe as any other industry, and it hampers their ability to respond to any crisis, much less one of Omicron’s size. For decades prior to COVID, underfunded school districts attempted to run overcrowded schools in decrepit, aging buildings with badly underpaid and overworked teachers. This already haphazard system was stretched to its breaking point by the pandemic, with teacher burnout from two years of online instruction leading to resignation rates that all school districts have struggled to recover from. Usually, substitute teachers could fill in those gaps, but in the fall substitute shortages threatened to overwhelm the education workforce overall. Teachers, with considerably greater exposure to students throughout the day, also appear to be at higher risk for contracting COVID in general. Retaining teachers is an incredibly complex issue, but without some governmental action taken to improve the pay, working conditions, and health and safety of educators, the shortage will only become more severe. Without that action, COVID is a stress test that our educational labor infrastructure may not survive. 


In the short term, though, some smaller measures should be taken to help brace our schools for the rest of the current spike. Democratizing information about Omicron and continuing community outreach can keep students and their families aware and safe. This goes hand in hand with the increasing distribution of vaccines, and the opening of more vaccine clinics in schools. These clinics are proven to raise vaccination rates in communities surrounding those schools and allow for further local support for educational infrastructure. Renewing mask mandates in schools is again largely a decision up to the state government, but is a necessary step in slowing the spread of COVID where possible. Striking them down is an extremely dangerous step, both for health and safety and future precedent, and should be strongly reconsidered here in Utah.


Beating Omicron is a massive endeavor and one that will require engagement from all sectors of social society, but schools are one of the most grassroots elements of community involvement. Being prepared and staying prepared for this surge is a necessary part of eliminating it, and one we ignore at our peril.