As Massachusetts continues to grapple with the coronavirus, the coming fall brings an uncertain future, as schools reopen, college and university students return, and officials fight to limit the spread of COVID-19.
There are signs of progress in the fight against the coronavirus: The state’s dashboard of public health indicators showed what it called positive trends in the disease, and Massachusetts has made it to the third phase of a four-part plan to reopen its economy since the outbreak began.
But the virus continues to lash. It has killed 8,607 people in Massachusetts, including 11 additional deaths reported Sunday. And a total of 114,398 people have confirmed cases of the disease, including 303 new cases.
And as local schools, colleges, and universities move to reopen this fall, Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, said the biggest challenge continues to be testing capacity.
That has remained an issue since the start of the pandemic, he said.
“We won’t know if we are getting into trouble unless schools can test lots of kids and get results back in 24 hours. Some of the colleges may able to do this, but they have been preparing for months,” Horsburgh said in an e-mail. “The primary and secondary schools are not prepared, and the state’s testing capacity is not up to the challenge of an onslaught of kids needing testing next month.”
Meanwhile, as some colleges and universities are bringing students back with widespread testing and other precautions, like Boston University, and other schools like Berklee College of Music and Smith College will hold online classes only.
In the days and weeks ahead, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, said he will be watching what happens in Boston as colleges and universities reopen.
“The influx of many thousands of students to Boston from across the United States and around the world opens up the possibility of importation of new cases no matter how carefully incoming students are screened,” Landrigan said in an e-mail Sunday. “None of the screening tests is perfect.”
Baker has slowed the reopening as numbers of new coronavirus cases ticked up. Last week, the state rolled out additional restrictions, including reducing the size of outdoor gatherings and stepped up enforcement for masks.
Local educators have also sounded concerns about resuming school in the pandemic, and the state’s handling of the crisis.
Some schools have already moved in that direction over local COVID-19 concerns. Friday was the deadline for local school officials to finalize plans to bring students back, including measures for full-time instruction in classrooms. But many districts, including Boston and Newton, opted instead to focus on remote learning and a limited return to school buildings.
Horsburgh, the Boston University professor, said the issue of whether schools, particularly grade schools, will be a factor in spreading the virus is still an open question.
“However, I think it is likely that they are [going to be],” Horsburgh said.
Massachusetts needs to watch and see what is happening in states where other schools have already opened, he said. If leaders here delay schools’ start to mid-September, Massachusetts will have time to see if primary and secondary schools can be opened without a serious rise in cases in adults, he said.
If there are problems in other states, Massachusetts must have plans for virtual school, Horsburgh said.
Factors far beyond Massachusetts will affect the state’s response to the disease — and one that is closely watched is progress on a vaccine for COVID-19.
Landrigan, the Boston College professor, said he will also be following efforts to develop a vaccine, and described himself as cautiously optimistic about the creation of one.
A potential vaccine being developed in part by Oxford University is moving along very nicely, he said, and some knowledgeable commentators believe that a usable vaccine will be available as early as the end of December.
“It is important to temper that information, however, with the recognition that it will still take many months after that to produce millions of doses and distribute them,” Landrigan said. “Health care workers and other essential personnel will probably be the first to receive any new vaccine.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.