Schools reopening? Not so fast.

Around the world and around the country “Post-COVID-19” re-openings are in the news. What does this mean for reopening Haverhill Public Schools and other nearby districts where plans and budgets are now being developed for the summer and for the 2020-21 school year?

First, it is important to be clear that nowhere in the world is yet in a post-COVID-19 period. We will not be post-COVID-19 until an effective vaccine is widely available and this is most likely many months or even a year or more away. The continuing threat of COVID-19 needs to be effectively addressed in any school reopening plan.

Second, we need to realize that here in Haverhill, in Essex County, and in Massachusetts overall, we have been hit harder by COVID-19 than most other places around the country and around the world. Our own Essex County ranks 24th among the more than 3,000 counties in the United States in total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Around the world, many of the countries that are reopening schools have had many fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths on a per-capita basis (see Chart 1).  Compared to other communities, confronting the higher case levels in our area will take more resources for tracking and tracing, and it will probably take longer to control COVID-19 sufficiently to permit safe return to schools.

Chart 1

Third, high rates of new cases persist in our area. While daily new cases in Essex County have recently been declining, they are continuing at a higher per-capita level than in other Massachusetts counties and the state average (see Chart 2). As of May 13, Essex County had 1,359 new confirmed COVID-19 cases identified in the preceding seven days. At this rate, we would see more than 70,000 new cases per year in Essex County alone.  As businesses begin to reopen, the decline in new cases may not continue or new case counts may rise.

Chart 2

These statistics should be unsettling for cities and school systems, which have not received specific guidance on when to reopen schools. While we are nowhere near herd immunity, a seasonal or episodic decline in coronavirus infections and increased control of the virus might enable a return to school for the fall semester. On the other hand, if rates of new cases remain near current levels or resurge with business reopening, it might be advisable to continue remote learning for most or all students into the 2020-21 school year. Reopening safely will require that our local COVID-19 prevalence falls low enough so that (1) COVID-19 cases entering schools are rare and (2) the capacity to test, track, trace and quarantine grows high enough so that any outbreak is assured to be contained without spreading widely. 

A fourth factor to consider is whether detailed plans are in place and sufficient resources are allocated for schools to operate safely under new COVID-19 requirements. Local school districts must consider whether and how much to move away from the current remote learning model. Districts will need to implement procedures to minimize student contacts during transportation and throughout the school day. This could include testing of all students plus daily health screening, perhaps with temperature checks. School committees will need to make decisions and commit sufficient funds early enough so that facility and operational changes can be developed and put in place before students return to school.

Coordination is needed between schools and the public health system, particularly to facilitate community tracking and to ensure that the virus is not spread from the community to the schools or from the schools to the community. When new cases emerge it will be necessary to follow up each case, identify recent contacts, trace those contacts, notify them of COVID-19 exposure, and ensure 14-day quarantine. The new Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracking Collaborative (CTC) announced by Governor Baker on April 3 includes Partners in Health, which is hiring and overseeing a workforce for contact tracing within Massachusetts. It will be important to verify that their efforts are sufficient to detect new cases and to quickly contain any new outbreak in our area.

These difficult times will continue for some months ahead – until an effective COVID-19 vaccine is found and made widely available. There is no guarantee that this will happen any time soon. Our local school districts face difficult choices and implementation challenges for teachers, administrators, and staff. Shared sacrifices by workers, parents, and taxpayers will be required.  We will need to continue social distancing and refrain from high-contact shopping, entertainment, and businesses interactions. Parents will need to play a greater role in their children’s education. Taxpayers will need to support additional COVID-19-related budget requirements to keep our schools and our community safe.

Every generation faces challenges, and our current challenges can be overcome by maintaining our commitment to the education of our next generation as we contend with the health threats and economic adversities brought on by COVID-19.

Note: This piece also appeared in the Eagle-Tribune.