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Parents Sending Kids Back To School Amid COVID Surge Nervous About The Weeks Ahead

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It's back to class for many kids across the state, even amid a major COVID-19 surge. No districts in Minnesota have announced they are staying closed or moving fully to distance learning.

Parents and educators say they are concerned about their health and more disruptions to learning.

Ashley Brown, of New Richmond, sent her kindergartner back to school Monday after more than two weeks out of the classroom.

"I'm nervous about what not today is going to bring but what the next coming days are going to bring," Brown said.

It's a sense of the inevitable among parents with children in school amid the highly contagious omicron variant spreading throughout Minnesota.

Districts were already dealing with staff shortages. Shakopee and St Paul Public Schools extended holiday breaks for more time to recuperate.

Greta Callahan, from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, says they have been asking for KN95 masks and a universal online option for students who have to quarantine.

"It's totally out of control," Callahan said. "Maybe somebody is sending packets home, maybe someone is putting something online, but because we don't have the infrastructure in place that we have been fighting for since the beginning, every student's experience is looking different right now."

Minneapolis Public Schools said there were 285 teachers out Monday. Superintendent Ed Graff said the district has other licensed staff on standby to work with students when they're short subs, or teachers may have to fill in the gaps.

"I know that is an extreme burden and stressor right now. The alternative in some cases would be we would have to shut down and move to distance learning," Graff said.

In Minneapolis, the public school system says it is closely monitoring omicron as students return to the classroom and will react accordingly. The school district talked about the return to the classroom amid the COVID-19 surge during an early afternoon press conference Monday.

"As we move through this surge in infections, some schools may temporarily move to distance learning and will be notified if and when that should happen," Minneapolis school officials said in a letter to students and families.

There's also some confusion over the CDC's recent change of the recommended quarantine timeline to five days. St Louis Park Public Schools announced Sunday they will still require any student or staff member to stay home 10 days from their onset of symptoms, or 10 days from their first positive test if they're asymptomatic.

WCCO spoke with a mother, Gira Vibhakar, who has two children in the Wayzata School District, which started back up Monday morning. She wishes they would have done a delayed start to give more time for everyone to get tested.

"I think Wayzata does a lot of things right. I'm very thankful they're still masking in schools, but with the current rise in Omicron and people are coming back from vacation, all my son's friends who were on vacation didn't come back until the end of the week, I just feel they need some time," Vibhakar said. "I need my kids in school, I want it to be open, I just think we need a week or two, a little bit of lag time from all of the holidays and get togethers so everyone can start from a place where we know everyone's COVID status."

Parents are still able to enroll their child in the state's virtual schooling option with spots available in grades K-12. Minnesota Virtual Academy's next enrollment deadline is Jan. 30.

A switch to distance learning is a change that's happening within school districts all across the country right now. Atlanta schools are starting as remote learning, Washington, D.C. school districts are doing a delayed start to give kids and teachers time to get tested and Miami schools are requiring a negative COVID test to return to the classroom.

Hospital Trends & Vaccines

Meanwhile, hospitals are starting to see a concerning trend.

"What we've seen in other parts of the country we're starting to see here, though I anticipate we'll see more of as we continue our surge of Omicron, but what we're seeing is kids under 5, so our babies especially but also our toddlers, just younger kids, getting hospitalized with COVID in a way that we've never seen before," Lichtsinn said.

Health experts say it's basically inevitable that children will be exposed to the Omicron variant if they're returning to in-person learning. But there are ways you can give your child the best protection possible.

If your child is 5 or older, health experts recommend they get vaccinated. While they can still get the virus while vaccinated, it will help prevent severe symptoms or hospitalization.

If your child is too young to get vaccinated or cannot get vaccinated for other health reasons, keep them out of the classroom. Stick to remote learning for the remainder of this surge, which national health experts predict will last through February.

The Moderna vaccine study for kids 5 and under is anticipated to be done next month, beating out the timeline of the Pfizer vaccine for toddlers and babies.

If you're sending your child back to the classroom, make sure they're wearing a high medical grade mask.

"For families who are sending their kids to school, using a really high quality mask is best," Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn with Hennepin Healthcare said. "That's something in the line of a KN95 or a KF94 type mask that has a really good seal around your kid's face and higher filtration than a typical cloth or thin paper mask."

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