It’s the news that every parent in the era of COVID-19 dreads: There’s an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak at your child’s school, and so it’ll have to close — again.
Thankfully, school closures have been rare in Massachusetts since in-person learning resumed. But with infection numbers again rising, and an outbreak in Jamaica Plain offering a fresh reminder of how disruptive closures can be, schools need to redouble their testing efforts in order to keep classrooms open.
The Curley School closed earlier this month after dozens of positive tests were reported among students and staff. Many parents complained that they learned about the initial outbreak by word of mouth rather than from school officials, and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has acknowledged the district’s contact tracing system had been insufficient. The K-8 school, which enrolls more than 900 students, is now slated to reopen Nov. 22.
Instead of in a classroom, students at the Curley have been stuck back at home, trying to learn math and English on a Chromebook — déjà vu of last year, when online learning proved so disruptive and ineffective.
The best way to prevent such outbreaks in the future is, obviously, to vaccinate the student body. The Pfizer vaccine is now available for kids as young as age 5. The Boston Public Schools are offering vaccination clinics across the city, and once the vaccine has been formally approved, the district should make it mandatory for students, as it already does for tetanus, polio, and other illnesses.
But it will take time to vaccinate students. The other tool at schools’ disposal is testing — and the more students who are participating in pool testing, the better. According to the state, though, Boston lags most other school districts in Massachusetts in obtaining parental consent to participate in testing. The district did not provide school-by-school figures, but the district-wide consent rate for BPS is just over 50 percent, according to a district spokesman. It’s clear that, with some effort, schools can get those consent numbers up: The principal of the Manning School, for instance, has been credited with getting the consent rate at her school up to 93 percent by personally contacting parents who hadn’t filled out consent forms. The state could also switch to an opt-out system, in which students are tested unless parents object, which would probably raise participation rates.
If more outbreaks do occur, closing a school has to remain a last resort, because of the impact of lost in-person learning on educational and social-emotional development (and the burden it places on parents). And while offering online learning during a closure is better than nothing, the last two years are vivid proof that it’s not a full substitute and shouldn’t be accepted as one. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has only allowed the Curley to count four days of remote learning as instruction time; the rest of the days lost because of the school’s closure will have to be made up at some other point in the year, similar to the way that schools make up snow days. Though the way Riley communicated that decision was not exactly diplomatic — “we are left to wonder if the whole school closure at the Curley could have been avoided,” he wrote, taking a dig at the district’s preparedness — his decision was the right call.
For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 will remain part of the school landscape in Massachusetts and across the country. How exactly to balance the safety of students and staff against the broader right to education has vexed districts across the country. Vaccines and frequent, widespread testing won’t make COVID-19 go away. But they will minimize the number of times that school officials again need to make an agonizing choice between risking either their students’ health or their education.
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