Thousands of flight cancellations, five-and-counting holiday football bowl games called off, and countless professional athletes benched due to swiftly spreading COVID outbreaks are ominous harbingers for K-12 education as the long winter break's end looms.

The new and highly transmissible omicron variant, as well as the still-circulating delta strain, are combining to set new case records in the United States and Europe. Widespread illness could make it challenging to keep students safely in the classroom in the weeks ahead. Staffing may be especially daunting, with outbreaks potentially leaving schools short of educators, bus drivers and cafeteria employees.

Disruption is something no one wants. In an era where there's little common ground, there's broad agreement about the importance of keeping kids in school. Individual action is key to making that happen.

The time to step up is now, with forgoing New Year's Eve parties an excellent down payment on preventing a switch to remote learning. Crowded indoor conditions are ideal for viral spread. Get 2022 off to a good start by not bringing home COVID from festivities.

Over the pandemic, a distinct shift has occurred. Viral control has largely moved from population-based measures, such as mask mandates, to relying on personal responsibility.

There were few options early in the pandemic other than lockdowns and masking to combat COVID. But now there are highly effective vaccines, potent treatments (though in alarmingly short supply), better access to high-filtration masks and, in Minnesota, abundant testing options to detect COVID.

The tools are there to protect ourselves and our communities — if we decide to use them. Doing so is critical to keep kids in the classroom, particularly in the weeks ahead, when omicron's short but intense surge is expected.

The availability of vaccines and other measures doesn't excuse political leaders from enacting broader policies. A temporary statewide indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools would help prevent learning disruptions.

Universal indoor masking is included in the Minnesota Department of Education's (MDE) guide to best practices, along with promoting vaccination, testing, ventilation, social distancing and disinfection.

But a statement this week from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's office suggests he is staying the course on current policy, which encourages mask use but defers to individual school districts on masking.

"The governor is closely monitoring the spread of cases and working with state and local experts on continued steps to keep students safe and in the classroom. Those steps include recommending mask wearing, encouraging testing and increasing access to vaccinations," the statement said.

"That's why the state has provided nearly 2 million tests to schools and held 82 vaccine clinics for students, staff and families that have helped make Minnesota sixth in the nation for 5 to 11 vaccination."

Even being sixth in the nation when it comes to vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds leaves too many kids unprotected. Currently, just 22% of Minnesota kids in this age group are fully vaccinated.

The importance of taking individual action to protect in-person learning is clear. Vaccinations, boosters, using high-filtration masks, avoiding high-risk settings and getting tested are vital for students and families. Another important step parents can take: checking if local schools are deploying COVID testing resources ( available through the state specifically for education.

Promptly detecting COVID is critical to halt its spread. Rapid tests accessible to schools through the state program can be sent home with symptomatic students and staff. There are options as well to test at school and to screen for illnesses in advance of outbreaks. Is your child's school taking full advantage?

Kids do best in the classroom. Teamwork is needed to keep them there with omicron's advance.