LENOX — I’m all for following the science, but when it comes to reopening schools full time for in-person education, and welcoming audiences back to our performing arts stages, a prescription worth following is called common sense.
In New York and a dozen other states, teachers and other school staff have been eligible for COVID vaccinations since last month. But, not in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker inexplicably has placed those groups, along with a lengthy list of other essential frontline workers, such as grocery store and Department of Public Works employees, in Phase Three, the start date uncertain.
This makes no sense, especially if we consider the lack of full, in-building schooling a national emergency. As Dr. Joseph Allen of Harvard University’s School of Public Health explains, the Biden administration’s 100-day schedule for partial reopenings (in May) is far too slow.
“That doesn’t sound like a national emergency to me,” he told NPR. “But, let’s be clear, it is an emergency, with hundreds of thousands of kids missing from schools, millions of missed meals due to closed schools, declines in literacy gains, mental health clinics being overrun, reports of increased suicide ideas among younger children.”
He points out that “when you have millions of kids out of school for an entire year, there would be devastating consequences, and our country has not treated it like the emergency it is.”
Allen, who also runs the university’s Healthy Buildings Program, contends, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, that schools can be open even in communities where virus infection rates remain too high. He cites research showing very limited student-to-teacher transmission of the virus when effective building ventilation, social distancing, masking and other familiar protocols are followed.
“Kids are less likely to transmit the virus, to get it, and only one in a million dies from it,” he asserted. “We know what it takes to keep safe indoors. We have to think about the risk when kids are out of school.”
Allen questions how, in some states, restaurants, bars, casinos, even indoor water parks are open, but school buildings remain closed or only partially open.
“It all comes down to strict adherence to the infection-control playbook,” he said. “It’s evidence-based, we know what needs to be done. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it can be implemented right now.”
Here in Massachusetts, if we want schools to reopen fully right after April vacation, including outdoor sports, state government has to enable teachers and all staff to be fully vaccinated pronto, sharing priority with the group of 65- to 74-year-olds and others now eligible.
Here’s another common-sense Rx.
It’s encouraging to see Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Theatre Group and, hopefully, Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow devise outdoor performance schedules for the spring and summer. Even indoor shows with proper distancing (such as Barrington Stage’s revamped main stage with a sharply reduced capacity of 163 seats) may be possible.
But, some audience members will be wary, even if they have been fully vaccinated. Solution: These venues should require ticket-buyers to present valid “vaccine passport” cards they receive at clinics to prove they have had the two-dose jabs. Same applies to performers and all other staffers in these theaters.
For the well-being of our young people, schools need to resume full-time, K-12 in-person instruction two months from now.
For the spiritual nourishment that live theater, music and dance bring to audiences, not to mention the economic health of our economy’s hospitality sector, a reasonable, if limited, summer season is vital.
With infection rates plummeting and vaccinations gaining momentum here after a rocky launch, it’s time to emphasize the mental and emotional health of our beleaguered citizens.
Of course, caution has to continue as the CDC has advised: “Now, more than ever, with the continued spread of variants that stand to threaten the progress we are making, we must recommit to doing our part to protect one and other.”
As frustrations mount and patience wears thin, why not combine valid scientific guidance and continuing vigilance with everyday, street-smart solutions so we can begin carefully traveling down the long road to a post-pandemic state and nation.