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Amid omicron surge, some Utah parents pull kids back to remote learning

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As the latest COVID-19 variant causes a spike in cases, parents weigh their options.

As COVID-19 cases in Utah soar to their highest levels at any point in the pandemic, disruptions to school are returning in full force in the new year.

Some school districts across the country saw a spike in absences Monday, while others shifted into remote learning. Meanwhile, the highly-contagious omicron variant is exacerbating ongoing staffing shortages, leading to more stress for teachers covering their colleagues’ classes and dealing with bus delays.

In Utah, many parents decided they were better off keeping their kids home.

“It's just very anxiety-ridden,” said Xochi Burgoyne, a mother of three young daughters in the Jordan School District. “We know that education is super important for them. And so it's hard to have to weigh their education versus their health and safety.”

Talia Draper, another parent with two sons in Jordan schools, said she made the difficult choice to keep them home this entire week as she keeps a close watch on case counts and looks into getting her older son, who is 13, a booster shot.

“It's almost a daily decision, at least the last couple of months,” Draper said. “Are they going to school or not? What is the best thing for our kids?”

She said she feels she needs to be particularly vigilant about the virus because she has a high-risk son who has severe asthma and has already been in the hospital recently with another virus.

But she also kept both of her kids home all of the previous year and a half, where they fell behind academically. She said after they had been vaccinated, she was feeling good about returning this month. Then omicron hit.

Draper said she feels like she’s in a never-ending version of the board game Settlers of Catan — constantly assessing the information yet always wary of making a wrong move.

“I see people all around me all day that are just going on with life as normal,” she said, “and so part of me wonders how nice would that be?”

It’s a familiar feeling for many parents with high-risk kids, or those who’ve been concerned about the unpredictability of how COVID would impact them. Still, Katie Nelson said leading up to the start of school Monday, she felt more relaxed than at any point in the pandemic.

Her 5-year-old son is blind and immunocompromised and has essentially sat out in-person classes the entire pandemic. But Nelson said over break, her entire family contracted the virus. It was thankfully mild for everyone, including her son who showed no symptoms.

While part of her wants to run free for the first time in nearly two years, she said she still decided to go against recent easing of isolation recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nelson said it felt like more mixed-messaging.

“It seemed so much different than what we had been told to do prior,” she said. “As a teacher, I know that that doesn't work. If my students aren't meeting the expectation, I can't lower it to try to get more people to meet the expectation.”

Burgoyne said at this stage in the pandemic, it seems most people just don’t want to think about it anymore. But she said if there is one thing to be positive about, it’s that her daughters now know they can do hard things.

They’ve done well academically throughout the pandemic and seem unbothered by being some of the few kids in their schools with masks. She said that’s something to be proud of.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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