Some Philly area parents worry about first weeks back from winter break, as omicron surges and CDC changes guidelines

File photo: Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Virtual school was a struggle for Stephanie Barnett’s daughter, now a sixth grader in the Souderton Area School District.

“She has some learning differences and really needs to be engaged in class,” Barnett said. “We feel like she did experience some regression last year, academically and socially.”

Barnett would like to send her daughter back to school in person after winter break. But the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on isolation and quarantine, released on Monday, makes her nervous.

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Under the new guidance, people who test positive for the coronavirus can leave isolation after five days instead of 10 — even if they haven’t tested negative — as long as they’re asymptomatic and wear a mask for five more days.

But Barnett worries about how well masking will be enforced, especially since the Souderton district lifted its mask requirement on Dec. 16, days after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court threw out the Wolf administration’s statewide school mask mandate.

“We have zero confidence that those children [leaving isolation] are going to be really required to wear masks, and that that’s going to be enforced, so that to me is the most concerning,” Barnett said.

She said other families have been talking about keeping their children home for the first week after break because of worries about the recent omicron-driven surge in COVID-19 cases.

Barnett wants to avoid that, but the new guidance “might be the nail in the coffin for my family and me. It’s really scary.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, families in the Philadelphia region are again balancing concerns about keeping their children physically safe during a COVID surge with a desire to keep them in the classroom.

Some say going virtual for the first two weeks of the new year would allow the virus to run its course through anyone who got infected over the holidays before students and staff return to school buildings.

For now, many districts are planning to start back in person.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which supports an in-person return, is working to incorporate the latest CDC recommendations into its own guidance for schools, according to spokesperson James Garrow.

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“We understand that there’s some pushback nationally, but we’ve been following CDC guidance throughout [the pandemic],” Garrow said.

Earlier this week, city officials acknowledged that coronavirus tests can be hard to come by right now — at-home tests are in short supply across the United States — and advised people who are experiencing symptoms but can’t find tests to act as if they’re positive and quarantine.

“The chances that it may just be a cold or some sniffles, at this point seeing the level of spread of COVID that we’re seeing, it’s probably a minority,” Garrow said. “We think that when folks feel sick there’s a good chance that they may have COVID.”

That guidance could put a strain on schools, many of which were already understaffed before the winter break as COVID cases climbed.

“We understand that it certainly is a possibility that we’ll see widespread absences those first couple weeks and potentially beyond that in the new year,” Garrow said. “But rather than closing it for everyone, this is the best way to ensure that some people are able to continue with their in-person learning.”

Rebecca Maule, whose eighth grader attends McCall School in the School District of Philadelphia, wishes she had a choice between virtual and in-person instruction.

She understands that for some families, getting back in the school building right after break is best. But the rising case count makes her uneasy.

“Why force kids that feel safer right now at home to go to school if we can just have the hybrid option?” she asked.

The plan to return fully in person immediately after the holidays puts her child in a “tricky situation,” she said. “We have to send them [back]. We have no choice, but it’ll be nerve-wracking.”

Julie Simeon, parent to a seventh grader in the Central Bucks School District, said she has “very mixed feelings” about sending her son back.

Like Souderton, the district recently made masking optional. She wishes masking were enforced.

Still, she wants her son there in person.

“It’s much healthier for him mentally,” Simeon said.

And omicron, though more transmissible, appears to be milder in children than previous variants.

“That helps me a lot,” Simeon said, “knowing that since he’s vaccinated, he should be OK either way.”

The calculus looks different for Larissa Hopwood, whose child has Type 1 diabetes and is at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.

“They’re really putting parents who have at-risk kids between a rock and a hard place,” she said of the Central Bucks School District.

Hopwood ended up keeping her kid home from school for the two weeks before winter break. At first, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“It was actually Monday morning [Dec. 13], where I woke Rowan up and was going to get him ready for school and just realized how dangerous that was,” she said.

She wanted to get him a heavier-duty mask. Then, as cases continued to rise, she didn’t feel comfortable sending him back.

Now, she’s taking it day by day as she figures out what to do in the new year.

“This feels like those chickenpox parties that people used to have in the ’80s,” Hopwood said.

“You know, ‘Let’s just expose our kids to chickenpox, and then we’ll all just get it over with.’ But it’s on a big scale, and we’re not being invited, we’re being forced into this.”

Like many, Stephanie Barnett, the Souderton parent, hopes any spike in omicron-driven cases is short term, and “then maybe, within a few weeks, we can return to somewhat pre-omicron. But nobody knows, and I think the uncertainty is the hardest part for everyone.”

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