School leaders are again worried holidays will cause COVID outbreaks

But students and staff also need the emotional boost of seeing relatives and friends, superintendent says
By: | November 15, 2021

With COVID rates see-sawing around the country, administrators are once again concerned holiday-related virus outbreaks could disrupt in-person instruction.

Even though younger students could be well into the vaccination process prior to Thanksgiving, modeling in Virginia shows the potential for holiday-season surges due to travel and large gatherings, Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Aaron C. Spence says.

“We’re concerned and we are certainly going to be watching that,” Spence says. “We are hoping people are smart—we’re hoping they’re getting vaccinated or wearing masks if they’re not.”

The district will be messaging the school community ahead of the holidays to encourage students and staff to follow COVID safety precautions, particularly if they plan to travel. So far, Spence says, mitigation strategies such as masks, distancing and deep cleaning have prevented widespread school closures in Virginia Beach, Spence says.

Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska has been able to operate in-person full-time this school year and last because students and staff have been taking COVID precautions, Superintendent Tawana Grover says. While concerns were high around the holidays in 2020, students and staff need the emotional boost of seeing relatives and friends. So administrators will not recommend that people avoid traveling, she says.

“That was the ask last year but I don’t know if that’s the ask this year,” says Grover, adding that her district has hosted a number of vaccination clinics for staff and students, including 5- to 11-years olds. “Now, we’re balancing that need for human connection and we’re going benefit from the joy of connecting in a safe way with those with whom we have close relationships.”

Jaime Stone, principal of Camden-Rockport Middle School in Maine, says classroom or school closures due to COVID outbreaks after holiday gatherings and travel are a real possibility. Her state is now just experiencing the delta surge that ravaged most of the rest of the country this summer and early fall.

The ICU at the area’s local hospital was nearing capacity with breakthrough cases last week, Stone says. At the same time, 100% of the district’s staff has gotten vaccinated and some have recently gotten booster shots. As of last week, 90% of the school’s 8th-graders and 80% of 7th-graders had also been vaccinated, she says. “I do think there will be impacts, and I think it will mostly be education loss,” she says. “I mostly worry kids will be out and have to miss school.”

Back in Virginia, students and staff at Henrico County Public Schools are creating public service announcements touting the importance of in-person learning and COVID’s potential to shut down classrooms and buildings, Superintendent Amy Cashwell says. The district has also held vaccination clinics and community information sessions to answer families’ questions about vaccinating children.

“Everyone now knows how invaluable the in-person learning experience is, and how much we need the connections,” Cashwell says. “We can only maintain this if we stay safe and keep each other safe and by not bringing COVID into our schools.”