Some universities shift to remote learning as COVID-19 cases rise on campus; school's entire 6th grade class quarantines after outbreak

The Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York.
Cornell University is one of the many colleges and universities switching over to remote learning as COVID-19 cases surge on campus. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Universities across the country shift to remote learning

A number of colleges and universities across the U.S. have abruptly moved to remote learning following a jump in COVID-19 cases on campus.

Cornell University announced this week that the school, which has a 97 percent vaccination rate, was moving finals online due to a massive increase in COVID-19 cases believed to be from the highly infectious Omicron variant. The school has also banned visitors from campus (with the exception of those who are picking up students) and canceled all undergraduate activities. From Dec. 9 through Dec. 15, Cornell detected 1,398 student cases, according to a school dashboard.

NYU, which has a 99 percent vaccination rate among students and faculty, will also be holding exams remotely due to a “sharp and conspicuous acceleration of new cases.” The school, which saw 174 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed from Dec. 6 through Dec. 12, will also require students and staff to provide proof of a booster shot by Jan. 18.

Other schools going remote include Vermont’s Middlebury College and Illinois’s DePaul University.

“We’re being very careful with Omicron,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life. “We don’t know how apt it is to cause serious disease, and many people are taking extra precautions.”

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life that he’s “not sure if it’s necessary” to shift to remote learning at this point. But, he added, “it will help curb the spread of COVID right now.”

Russo said that infectious disease experts are “concerned” that college campuses with high vaccination levels are seeing large numbers of breakthrough COVID-19 cases. “Unfortunately, we’re learning that Omicron is causing a significant erosion of that protection if people haven’t had a booster shot,” he said.

Entire sixth grade class in Southern California school is in quarantine

Sixth grade students at the Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda, Calif., are all in quarantine. The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District shared in a statement on Monday that it has discovered “dozens of cases” of COVID-19 in students at the school.

“A majority of these cases involve students in sixth grade, with very few cases taking place among other grade levels and staff members,” the statement reads. “This has resulted in hundreds of students who have been identified as close contacts.” As a result, school administrators made the decision to quarantine the entire sixth grade, with teachers offering live instruction over Zoom. “The district does not take this decision lightly and apologizes for the inconvenience; however, this determination was made with the safety of students, staff, and families as the absolute top priority,” the statement says.

The school, which requires that masks be worn by everyone on campus, has also canceled or postponed large gatherings and programs outside of the typical school day for all grade levels. Travis Ranch’s winter break starts on Monday, so sixth graders won’t return to classrooms until at least Jan. 3.

While quarantining an entire grade is a bold step, infectious disease experts said it makes sense. “Given how little we know about Omicron at the moment, this is a good move,” Schaffner said. “If we’re reassured that it’s less serious, we might ease up.”

Russo agreed. “If some of the students are incubating the virus, quarantining the entire grade will minimize future spread among them,” he said.

School districts send home COVID tests for students to use before returning from winter break

School districts across the country are sending home COVID-19 test kits to students that are designed to be used before they return to school after winter break.

On Friday, Chicago Public Schools is distributing 150,000 take-home COVID-19 testing kits to students in select areas that are either deemed at high risk for COVID-19 or are considered medium-risk elementary schools. Parents are encouraged to test their students on Dec. 28 and mail the test on that day. School is scheduled to resume on Jan. 3.

“I ask parents, I plead with parents: Please take advantage of this if your school is in one of these communities,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said at a school board meeting on Wednesday. “Take advantage of this test, especially with all the gatherings. ... This way we’ll know that your child is not positive and, again, will help us to keep our schools safe.”

Schools in Northern California’s Marin County also plan to send 47,000 COVID-19 rapid tests home with every student and staff member for the holidays, Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools, said in a recent meeting. “We have secured a kit, with two tests each, for every student and staff member in Marin County,” she said. School officials are urging students and staff to take one of the tests the afternoon before they’re scheduled to return to classes on Jan. 3.

Russo called this a “good mitigation measure,” adding that it will “help identify some people who are infectious.” But, he added, “one needs to remember that this is a single snapshot in time. If you’re negative, it doesn’t mean you can’t be positive the next day.”

Schaffner encouraged other school communities to increase testing. “We can use testing much more widely than we have before in adding yet another intervention to help us keep risks low,” he said. “Testing more can help us reduce transmission.”

One Missouri district plans to ditch masks after the holidays

Missouri’s Columbia Public Schools district announced this week that it will be removing the districtwide mask mandate when students return to school on Jan. 4. “Given the increased access to vaccination for all who are eligible, which now includes scholars ages five and up, masks will no longer be required in all district buildings PreK-12 or at district events,” the announcement reads.

The district also plans to change its contact tracing and quarantine guidelines, noting that officials are “working on” them.

Experts said it’s not a good idea to remove mask mandates right after the holiday break. “There will probably be a large wave of COVID-19 cases due to Omicron after the holiday break,” Russo said. “Schools should wait to see which direction things go before making that decision.”

Schaffner agreed. “People who voted in that way have crystal balls that are much clearer than mine,” he said. “But I would not be ready to recommend removing the masks just yet.”

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