EVERY CITY AND TOWN in Massachusetts has spent months trying to figure out how to return to in-person schooling. We all know the social, emotional, and educational benefits for our children. We all know a fully functioning school system also primes the pump of our economy because it allows everyone to go to work. I recognize the importance not just as a mayor, but as a parent of four school-aged children. However, the stark reality is we’re in the midst of a pandemic with COVID-19 cases still cropping up all over our state.
What we have needed from the start is a real plan from the state and the support needed to implement it. We need pervasive surveillance testing so we can catch and isolate new cases before we suffer general outbreaks. We need robust contact tracing. We need to re-outfit ventilation systems in our schools and reorganize our classrooms. We need to have a rational understanding of how many other things in our society we can have open before we attempt to bring back our schools full-time. Instead, what we got last week was a color-coded map that provides no new information for those of us working on these issues.
I appreciate the bind in which Gov. Charlie Baker finds himself. Much of what we need to develop a sustainable reopening plan relies upon federal funding and support, and that’s a black hole from which no help is likely to emerge. However, a map is not a plan.
Municipal officials already are well aware of our local numbers. Yet it means very little that our community ranks as low risk of transmission when we have two extremely high risk communities, Everett and Chelsea, on our border and a school workforce that resides throughout the region. What happens in Everett and Chelsea happens in Somerville. Coronavirus doesn’t recognize city lines. If we’ve got an outbreak on our doorstep, then we need to respond like we’ve got an outbreak.
Also, the map is a snapshot of what happened weeks ago. That’s when those people registering as new cases were catching this virus. It took all of two days for the number of extremely high risk communities in our state to jump from four to 11. We need to be looking at a mix of metrics to understand the direction the disease is taking, including the 7-day and 14-day moving averages of positive cases, testing, and positivity rates, as well as any acceleration of trends statewide, regionally, and locally. Those metrics must also be seen in context: do we have adequate testing for students, teachers ,and staff? Are test results coming back swiftly? Is our contact tracing robust? Are our ventilation systems COVID ready? Do we have sufficient PPE?
The warning we are receiving from epidemiologists from our state’s leading schools of public health is that we sit on the cusp of a second wave of the virus. We are not on top of this disease. That’s the big picture. We are nowhere near being able to operate schools, businesses, or life in general in a way that passes as normal. We are groping for order in the midst of chaos.
Cities and towns are being asked to figure out school transportation, ventilation, testing, classroom distancing, and sanitization largely on our own in the midst of a crisis over which we have minimal control. The local officials trying to determine the basic mechanics of how to operate schools safely are far removed from the decisions being made about our statewide public health response to coronavirus. These efforts must be better coordinated from the state level where the most resources reside.
We got detailed plans from the state on salons, restaurants, gyms, and retail, but were asked to essentially go it alone on schools. Let’s be clear: schools should be a priority element of the statewide plan rather than an extra that someone else figures out.
Tom Bernard, ther mayor of North Adams, summed it up perfectly, saying: “It’s not just telling us to figure it out by ourselves. It’s telling us to figure it out and then to submit our work to be graded on how well our plans conform to vague guidelines scored against a hidden rubric.”
In order to change that, the state needs to start being proactive rather than reactive. The National Basketball Association and Yale University just developed a saliva test for COVID-19, which could render results quick enough to institute true surveillance testing in our schools. Figure out how to scale that for every school system in the state and how to pay for it, because most municipalities do not have the money to run a robust testing program.
Provide the expertise needed to make physical adjustments to our schools so that we know students and staff are entering safe environments, especially in communities with fewer financial resources and a higher incidence of cases. We cannot make this a crisis where the richer communities in the state with the newest buildings and the ability to retrofit their older ones can supply a safe environment while less fortunate communities are forced to roll the dice. This cannot be yet another dividing line between the haves and the have nots.
Institute contract tracing all across the state, possibly via digital contact tracing, so we can reduce the unchecked spread of the disease in our communities. Then implement a phased return to our schools with enough time in between the phases to make sure the disease isn’t ramping up.
It’s going to take something along those lines to get our schools back in a sustainable fashion. State-level discussions with the teachers unions, which must agree to these plans, would also be the right thing to do.
What people deserve most in these times is the truth. The truth is there are no easy decisions when it comes to reopening schools during an active pandemic. The truth is our schools got put toward the back of the reopening line. The truth is Massachusetts’ COVID numbers continue to fluctuate and a highly contagious disease still lurks among us. The truth is much of the support our schools would need from the state level in order to operate safely has not been put in place. The truth is an outbreak in a school can quickly turn into a community outbreak.
Fond wishes and good intentions are not going to protect students, their families, or school staff from this disease. In Somerville we feel any plan that involves in-person schooling at this time is too reliant on us hoping for good outcomes rather than ensuring them. We are not comfortable telling families they will be part of an experiment, which it assuredly would be. We have too many variables to consider it safe.
We need to confront the complexity of the choices we’re being asked to make and the enormity of the stakes. Everything we do these days is consequential. Hard choices are the only choices we’ve got. We either hold ourselves to a higher standard and develop a real plan of action or we cross our fingers while we take risks with the lives of everyone in or connected to our schools. And ultimately, that’s all of us.
Joe Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.