Guest Op-Ed: The Responsibility to Ensure a Safe School Reopening Lies With All of Us

By Astrid Weins, MD

The responsibility to ensure a safe school reopening lies with all of us

As a mother to a 7-year old and a 3-year old, I wish nothing more for our family than to go back to our normal life, to socialize with our friends, to visit our parents in other states and abroad, to take our kids on carefree vacations without restrictions, and, last but not least, for our kids to have a fun and rich experience at school or preschool. There is no question that I am privileged with these wishes: I have a house to retreat to, a yard for my kids to play in and a secure job. I am well aware that others are less fortunate. I am also an essential healthcare worker and scientist, and as such, although not working on the frontline, have had a unique and close up perspective on the devastations of COVID-19 at a major medical center. Lastly, I serve on the local Board of Health, which has forced me to stay up to date on all guidelines, to be involved in advisories and town decisions, and to follow our COVID numbers closely. I have also been following the fierce debate around the safe reopening of schools amid this active pandemic, with friends that are teachers and others that are parents. That said, I am not writing this letter to pontificate, or to sway you to either side. Because, unfortunately, this is a conundrum without right or wrong.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still very active, even here in Massachusetts, of which we were painfully reminded by a recent spike in cases in our town. It only takes one infected person to start a major outbreak, as a cautionary tale of a summer camp in Georgia shows that ended in hundreds of cases and was traced back to one (!) infected individual. We all need to realize that, unless and until we will have achieved widespread immunity through vaccination, AND easy, quick and reliable surveillance through testing is available consistently, this pandemic will not be over. We may be sick of the virus (I know I am!), but the virus will not be sick of us for a long time to come.

Proponents of an in-person return-to-school component argue that the essential educational, social, and developmental benefits can only be delivered using in-person teaching; that racial and socioeconomic injustices would be exacerbated by a remote-only option; and that the economy can only recover when parents have access to sufficient childcare opportunities. They further argue that school reopenings in other countries, such as for example the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, have happened without major incidents, albeit with infection rates far below those we currently have, even in Massachusetts. Proponents of remote learning are rightfully very concerned about the safety of their children, their families and, naturally, the teachers. The problem is, no one is wrong here.

Furthermore, we know that social distancing and wearing masks are highly effective in reducing exposure and transmission in the general public. The healthcare setting has shown that wearing masks and PPE can almost eliminate the risk of direct transmission of SARS-CoV2 even in close and indoor settings. However, would it really be wise to simply rely on our teachers and our children to be similarly prudent in their use of such protective equipment?

Our school district will need to walk a tightrope between ensuring the highest possible safety to its teachers and our 1900+ students, and at the same time providing educational content, social interaction and childcare to satisfy its mission “to educate, develop and support all students to reach their full potential”. This raises the question: Are we asking our schools to do the impossible?

Let’s step back for a moment and look at what we HAVE done, in fact without much of any fierce debate: We were quick to open non-essential businesses, such as hair salons, gyms and in-door dining to a public very eager to return to some normality and regain personal freedom, to support our local businesses and recharge our social batteries drained during months of isolation. This has not been without problems: States that opened up less carefully than our own have seen a resurgence of virus transmission that has in many cases by far surpassed the initial peak. Yet, now, after all this non-essential reopening has happened, we are finally faced with calls to reopen our schools. Were we careful enough? Was this the right order? Or are we paying for our regained “freedom” with our children’s and teachers’ safety?

All of a sudden, we are discussing the necessity of 6ft instead of 3ft of distance between desks, whether the teachers are able to monitor and enforce mask wearing and handwashing, whether the state will come out with exact guidelines that regulate every aspect of our students’ school experience, etc. Meanwhile, we have done and are still doing a terrible job with following these same guidelines in our everyday life, when taking walks, when going to the beach, when hanging out with friends, when dining at restaurants, when going shopping!

The only solution is a simple one. The single most important determinant of the success, i.e. safety, of the unprecedented public health “experiment” of reopening the schools during a pandemic, is our unwavering and strict commitment to following those guidelines that have proven effective to prevent virus exposure and transmission in our community. This commitment needs to start immediately and without hesitation. There is simply no other way. The families, the children, the educators of this town are being asked to put their health into our hands, by having to trust that every single member of this community does everything possible to prevent transmission of the virus. Yes, this is a call for unity, and political leanings or convictions should not matter. We are all in this together. We can only get through this together.

There is no excuse for not wearing a mask in public.

There is no excuse for hosting a party during a pandemic.

There is no excuse for lack of social distancing, anywhere.

Please do your part.

Astrid Weins, MD, PhD is a Winthrop Resident of Precinct 3 and Vice Chair, Winthrop Board of Health

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