FALL RIVER — If there was any school district determined to follow Governor Charlie Baker’s pleas to stay open in the face of the state’s second surge of COVID-19 this fall, it was this city’s.
Serving mostly low-income families, it provides a safety net as much as an education to many, so even as Fall River’s infection rates climbed to the third-highest in the state in mid-November, far past the points where other districts closed, Superintendent Matt Malone kept schools open. Children played at recess, ate lunch, and debated in classrooms.
But then COVID-19 rates in the city climbed so high that Malone finally gave in, announcing last week a shift to remote school for most students until January.
“The numbers are forcing our hand,” Malone said this week.
In the 10th month of the pandemic, officials responsible for educating Massachusetts’ 911,432 public school students are grappling with two competing and wildly conflicting narratives: The hopeful one presented by Baker and by a growing global consensus of scientists that COVID-19 has not spread widely in schools, especially at the elementary level, and the alarming one of a surging second wave that seems bound to test the limits of that understanding. Superintendents are facing pressure from frayed parents on both sides of the argument, and many are choosing to take what they see as the safer path, limiting children’s time in school — often for reasons that have as much to do with logistics and politics as they do with science.
Making those decisions even more fraught, districts are contending with unique sets of circumstances that complicate the question of reopening — from crowded classrooms and costly bus contracts to the terms of agreements forged with teachers unions based on the scientific understanding during the summer. As a result, the state’s roughly 400 school districts remain a patchwork of half-days, half-weeks, and remote education.
“You can’t just change up the model overnight,” said Natick Public Schools Superintendent Anna Nolin, who was among several MetroWest superintendents who rebuffed the governor’s call to reopen schools.
Some districts, like Stoughton and Hingham, have recently announced plans to bring students back for more time in January, but other education leaders, including six Greater Boston school superintendents interviewed for this story, said that despite the governor’s pressure, they don’t find sudden or major changes feasible. Some noted their crowded schools would have to defy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to satisfy the governor.
“To return the students would mean to relax the standard of six feet of social distancing. This begs the question: have the schools not proven to be the ‘superspreaders’ we imagined they’d be simply because of the safety protocols we’ve put into place?” Nolin asked in a statement to her community, which has been following a partly in-school, partly online schedule.
Complicating the matter, CDC guidance has been changing along with scientists’ understanding of the coronavirus, confusing many. The CDC now recommends schools stay open as much as possible, yet acknowledges levels of risk that vary based on factors such as community virus rates and spacing between students and concedes, “There is no easy answer.”
The governor’s change, in early November, encouraged schools to close only in communities with extraordinary risk or where transmission has occurred in schools. The administration maintains there has been little to no transmission in schools.
But some superintendents aren’t so sure. And with the state now facing a second surge, many schools are retreating from previous plans to open.
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley acknowledged that some schools may have to close due to staffing issues related to teacher quarantines, but he encouraged local officials to consider evolving evidence that indicates schools — with proper precautions — are safe.
“My hope is that everyone is focused on what’s best for the kids,” Riley said. “There has to be a recognition that the information and the data changes, and we need people to be flexible and to change with that data.”
But the calculation of what’s best for kids depends on location, perspective, and politics.
In Boston — as in New York City — officials found themselves hemmed in by agreements with powerful teachers unions that promised schools would close once a certain citywide threshold of positive COVID tests was reached. Infuriated parents protested in New York, which announced a sudden reversal on Sunday by deciding to reopen elementary schools.
Many suburban districts have been trying to satisfy everyone with “hybrid” models that offer students limited time face to face with teachers in school buildings, augmented by additional assignments and virtual classes from home. While greatly improved over the improvised efforts to teach children remotely last spring, when schools were suddenly shut, such programs are criticized by parents as insufficient. The longer schools rely on such half-measures, the more parents and public health specialists worry about what is being lost, not only in academics, but also in children’s emotional and social growth.
Epidemiologists exhaled last summer after COVID-19 spikes did not follow school reopenings in many states. In some places, rates of infection in schools were even lower than outside them.
“What we are seeing in the data is that school rates are reflecting community rates and schools are not a significant source of spread,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist and leading researcher on school COVID cases. “It’s a very controlled environment.”
Building on earlier research that found young children do not seem to become infected or transmit the virus to the same degree adults do, the data convinced some prominent epidemiologists to revisit their earlier recommendations.
“Maybe the answer is you never want to shut down,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “This is not what I thought two months ago. I just have learned, because of the evidence.”
Teachers unions, for their part, have expressed skepticism about schools’ purported safety, saying many school outbreaks have likely gone undocumented amid inadequate testing and contact-tracing efforts. Several local unions passed no-confidence votes in Riley, calling his pressure to reopen schools dangerous and irresponsible.
But absent rampant school spread, many experts began giving greater weight to the potentially deleterious effects of long-term isolation on students. Appearing with Baker recently, Dr. Mary Beth Miotto, a Worcester pediatrician and vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ state chapter, said doctors are increasingly concerned about rising obesity, depression, and suicidal thoughts and attempts among youths — trends she linked to closed schools.
Along with the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, experts began suggesting the United States should have adopted a model more like Europe, where schools were considered essential and kept open, while more high-risk settings, such as bars and indoor dining, closed.
“School is such a critical piece of so many children’s lives that it’s a bit difficult to reconcile restaurants and bars being open but schools closed,” said Renée Turzanski-Fortner, who teaches public health online at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In Heidelberg, Germany, where she lives, her two teenagers attend school five days a week.
The cost-benefit analysis is most lopsided for the youngest students, whose attention is hardest to sustain when school is online.
“It’s really hard being a parent and a scientist and seeing the effects of COVID are being taken into account but not necessarily the effects of not being in school,” said Elissa Perkins, a Boston Medical Center doctor who directs infectious disease management for the Department of Emergency Medicine, and a Milton mother.
Some schools had tried to build their plans accordingly, keeping elementary schools open.
In Burlington, for instance, elementary students were going in to school buildings every day, for a half-day at least, until rising COVID concerns prompted a post-Thanksgiving weeklong switch to remote learning.
But middle and high school students were attending just two days a week, a decision that Superintendent Eric Conti noted he could not change arbitrarily. It was based on an agreement worked out last summer with the teachers union, which stipulated 6 feet of social distancing. Although state officials maintain that 3 feet with masks would suffice, the CDC still recommends 6, where feasible. And that standard “6-foot rule” has been ingrained in everyone’s brains since March, said Conti.
Likewise, he and other superintendents noted, state officials pushing them to return to school may not realize the day-to-day realities of operating amid a pandemic. Teachers are often quarantined while awaiting test results and substitutes are hard to find. Those staffing constraints are likely to prompt more school closures, Conti said.
But school officials are having a hard time explaining the logistics to parents who are desperate to return to work and to restore some sense of normalcy for their children. In some suburban districts, well-educated parents quoting the latest scientific consensus have been demanding school officials reimagine plans developed last summer.
In Milton, a prosperous and diverse suburb bordering Boston, more than 500 parents signed a petition asking school officials to expand time in school from the abbreviated hybrid model used so far this year. In-school attendance is limited not just into half-weeks, but half-days — a concession made to avoid a maskless lunch.
Milton officials had always planned to expand hours gradually — just this week, the highest-needs students returned for full days — but by late fall, their adherence to the summer plan smacked of “rigidity” to Pony Stacpoole, a parent who coordinated the petition.
She noted that even on the days her two children attend middle school in person, they are sometimes sent to the auditorium to learn remotely from a teacher who is at home under quarantine.
That’s because Milton teachers have been advised to stay home whenever one of their students’ relatives tests positive for COVID-19, even if the student has not. Perkins, the Milton mother and doctor who has studied coronavirus transmission, said that’s overly conservative.
“What is happening in our district and others is that people are making decisions based on fear, not science,” Perkins said.
That’s disputed by other Milton parents, who drew up a counter-petition urging school officials not to change the existing plan, saying it appropriately prioritizes safety.
Bringing students back into school buildings for more hours a day requires a recalculation not just of the evolving virus science but all of the math officials had already done to determine such things as how many students classrooms could safely accommodate and the number of bus runs required to get them to school, said interim Superintendent James Jette.
“If I bring everybody back to school, we can’t even fit them in here at 3 feet apart,” he said. “Like the parents, I want the kids back in school full time but when it’s safe to do so.”
Despite the reassuring data suggesting low transmission in schools, Jette said he and other officials must make decisions based on what they see in front of them. Three weeks ago, he said, he began getting calls about Milton High School students testing positive for COVID-19.
Had there been in-school transmission? Nobody knew yet. Both testing and contact tracing take time. But just a few days later 13 cases were reported. Jette closed both the high school and the middle school for two weeks.
“I have no other choice,” he said. “You don’t know how widespread it is.”
Jette said he suspects in-school transmission had already occurred in his district in October, when at least a half-dozen staffers and a student tested positive. One of the employees spent three nights in the hospital and had to be put on oxygen; she feared she’d never come home.
“We all got sick about the same time, within a day or two,” said the employee, who has since recovered, but asked not to be identified. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Though the state has identified 63 clusters of COVID cases in K-12 schools since Oct. 18, officials identified only one case of in-school spread, in Lawrence, and maintain that transmission is more likely occurring where students are socializing or playing sports.
Fall River’s superintendent, Malone, also said he suspects two cases of transmission in his district, including one between staff members in an office, though he believed those instances didn’t jeopardize safety at his schools and stayed open.
But by late November, infections in students and staff were on the rise, he said, and dozens of teachers remained in quarantine or out sick.
Malone said he delayed as long as possible, hoping the numbers would improve. He drafted a plan to shut school for all but the highest-need students and wrote a letter to families. But he held off sending it.
Two days later, the day after Thanksgiving, Malone checked the state’s website for the latest community COVID rates and felt he couldn’t wait any longer; Fall River had jumped from 86 to 92 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly triple the state average.
“All along, I’ve said, ‘We’re going to be safe. We’re going to do this smartly,’ ” Malone said. “At some point, I’m feeling dishonest if I don’t say the spread rate’s too high.”