In Sherborn, the problem began with a house party where more than 100 young people were “gathered together without social distancing or face coverings.” In Sudbury, it was a party half that size, broken up by police. In Dedham, two gatherings of young people, including “a party attended by high school students,” propelled the fall from grace.
In each case, parties hosted by high school students that would have once been routine have thrown entire school districts into disarray, warranting furious letters from school administrators and delaying in-person learning in some Dover-Sherborn, Lincoln-Sudbury, and Dedham schools.
The gatherings have also frustrated the best efforts of school and public health officials, who say that despite the high stakes, there isn’t much schools can do to prevent similar events in the future.
“Schools don’t have the authority to punish or impose penalties for what kids do on their own time,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
And beyond the question of authority, public health officials said punitive enforcement — such as fines or suspensions — likely wouldn’t work well anyway.
Public health initiatives work best when there’s sufficient education, buy-in from participants, and access to resources that make following the rules possible, said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University. Without those factors in place, people will try to skirt the guidelines, moving parties to other towns or pulling up a mask only when a police officer approaches.
“You need people to be convinced they need to do this when nobody’s watching,” Scarpino said.
Police enforcement also raises the prospect of unequal enforcement in Black and white communities, Scarpino said, after a summer of reckoning over police use of force against Black people.
It has been especially difficult to get voluntary buy-in from teenagers in the face of a chaotic federal response that has failed to control the coronavirus in the United States, Scarpino said. Teens (and their parents) have no sense of how long social distancing measures will need to be in place.
“How long are we asking kids not to go to parties for? Are we saying it’s a month, or six months, or a year?" Scarpino said. ”How on earth are you supposed to get buy-in from individuals — asking them to do something hard — when they’re completely in the dark about . . . how long they need to do it for?”
The parties had such dramatic fallout partly because town officials couldn’t be sure who attended them, as some kids gave fake names or ran away when the gatherings were shut down. That made contact tracing impossible.
“We have no way of knowing the names of all of the people who attended the party, or whether they might have been exposed to the coronavirus,” wrote Andrew W. Keough, superintendent of the Dover Sherborn Regional School district, in a letter to the school community. The high school shifted to full-remote in the wake of the party, Keough said, and advised the siblings of any of the party’s attendees to also stay home, acknowledging that families may not actually know if their children had attended.
The same scenario has played out in districts across the state. In Reading, administrators at the Austin Preparatory School, an independent 6-12 grade Catholic school, got an anonymous tip that roughly 40 upper-class students attended a party over the weekend.
In response, Head of school James Hickey announced he would shut down all in-person activities for two weeks, and although there are no confirmed cases of the virus among students who attended the party, administrators have switched to remote learning until Sept. 29.
In Sudbury, a “large party involving approximately 50-60 Lincoln-Sudbury High School students” prompted the Board of Health and the school to delay in-person learning there, while two gatherings in Dedham led to delayed in-person learning, as well.
“To say we have been terribly inconvenienced by what happened is an understatement!” wrote Bella Wong, superintendent of the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School District, in a letter to the school community.
The letters from some school administrators were notably frustrated, taking both kids and parents to task for the large gatherings.
“What likely happened is that adults chose to turn a blind eye, pretending that what the kids were up to was ‘no big deal’ and simply a case of kids being kids, or even worse, they set their kids loose without any inkling of what they would be up to that evening,” Keough wrote.
There have long been efforts to educate high school students about underage drinking and safe sex, said Koocher, but families and teachers haven’t had much time to stress best practices around the virus. Suddenly, behavior that once was harmless can put communities at risk.
Compounding the problem is that kids have been out of schools for months, largely out of touch with the teachers and administrators who might have had some credibility in asking them to change their behavior.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the vast majority of school districts had not had issues with parties. But still, he wondered if a fundamental high school behavior is the best tool available to encourage kids to wear masks, social distance, and avoid large gatherings.
“I’m hoping,” he said, “peer pressure will have some influence on them.”
Gal Tziperman-Lotan contributed to this report.