Omicron variant raising questions for North Texas school districts as kids return to school

Despite the fastest surge in COVID-19 cases yet fueled by the omicron variant, some of the largest school districts in North Texas are still set to let mask mandates expire next month.

The mask mandates at Richardson ISD and Dallas ISD are set to end next month, despite children's hospitals seeing their numbers of patients triple and even quadruple in just one week.

RELATED: Cook Children's reports spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations among kids due to omicron

And now many school districts will also need to decide if they will reduce their quarantine recommendations in light of the new CDC guidelines.

"If school districts let mask mandates fall by the wayside, now is the time to pick them back up," Dallas County Medical Society President Dr. Mark Casanova said. 

While that is the consensus among multiple medical experts FOX 4 spoke with this week, none of the 10 largest school districts in North Texas have any plans to bring back mask mandates or extend ones that are set to expire.

As it stands, districts would be in violation of Governor Greg Abbott's ban on mask orders, which was upheld in early December by a federal appeals court. 

Dr. Casanova warns that relaxing the rules could lead to staffing shortages, or hot spots, that might mean a temporary return to virtual school. 

"Don't think it will be a long period of time, but we are collectively in for a pretty rough four weeks, at least," he added.

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FILE - A poster from the CDC in the hallway that says, "Please wear a cloth face covering" and "Maintain a distance of 6 feet whenever possible." (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

RELATED: UTD delays spring semester due to omicron variant

UT Dallas became the first college in North Texas to announce it will delay the start of classes due to COVID-19. It will be delayed by eight days, until after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 

The college said in a statement, "delaying the start of classes by eight days gives added time to assess the progression of the virus and will give our faculty, staff, and students a bit more time to prepare."

The surge in cases comes at the same time the CDC cut its recommended quarantine and isolation periods from 10 days to five days. 

Shane Fernando, an epidemiologist with UNT's Health Science Center, said the new guidelines are ones schools will have to weigh carefully.

"It will be a challenge for any ISD. CDC guidelines are confusing," he said. "Our clinic is maintaining standard of 10 days to be extra cautious, but it is up to the ISD."

The CDC's new guidelines say it is permissible for someone to return to public settings five days after a positive test or exposure if they are not showing symptoms, as long as they continue to wear a mask for five more days. 

[REPORTER: "If a child goes back to school but is wearing a mask, what about at lunch time? Does the kid need to sit at a table by themself?"]

"That is a great question. I think they should if we observe six-feet distancing," Fernando responded.

There is also concern about rising hospitalizations of pediatric patients.

Dr. Priya Subramanian, infectious disease medical director at Texas Health in Bedford, said the omicron variant seems to be second only to the measles in terms of transmissibility. 

"Seventy percent more transmissible than previous variants," Dr. Subramanian said.

But Dr. Subramanian said, unlike a year ago, everyone five years old and and up has a tool to battle the virus, vaccination.

"The vast majority hospitalized are not vaccinated," Dr. Subramanian said.