When Will It Be Safe to Return to School?

Astrid Dalton, Contributing Writer

Ever since we first entered lockdown in March, students, teachers, and parents alike have all wondered when it would be safe to return to school. To keep everyone safe and prevent a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, it is crucial that schools remain closed for as long as necessary. However, such a strict lockdown can prevent or disturb some families’ work, leaving them unable to pay for food, internet, or rent. Finding the right balance between getting everyone back to work and keeping people safe is the crux of the problem with reopening. The stakes here couldn’t be higher: a botched reopening could lead to a resurgence in cases, potentially causing dozens of deaths at a local level, and hundreds of thousands nationally.

The most important thing to consider as we reopen is undeniably the safety of everyone involved. At the moment, COVID-19 is a greater threat to people than any lockdown or school closure, so it must be considered before anything else. Considering only COVID-19, there are several different ways Cambridge could become safe enough to reopen. First, a vaccine could be developed, which would negate the need for masks or social distancing if enough people were immunized. Second, Cambridge’s case load could be reduced to a manageable level, but only if strict social distancing guidelines are followed, especially in conjunction with contact tracing and testing. A return to school will only be safe if either of these conditions are met, so the best thing you can do to right now is obey lockdown measures as much as you can.

Vaccines are unlikely to be available soon enough to let schools reopen. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) make it impossible for a vaccine to be ready before November 3rd, even though President Trump has on many occasions boasted that a vaccine would be ready by then. Additionally, it takes a long time to distribute vaccines even after they have been developed. In mid-September, the director of the CDC said he doesn’t think a vaccine will be available for widespread use before the middle of next year, but even that may be too optimistic of an estimate.

At the moment, COVID-19 is a greater threat to people than any lockdown or school closure.”

While waiting for a vaccine to be developed, it is also vital for the city to ensure that families can continue to provide for themselves in lockdown, as families could be evicted and forced to go hungry if they can’t. This would make a lockdown impossible to implement, so it’s imperative to take measures in order to ensure that families continue to support themselves until we reopen. Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) and other organizations have helped by providing food, clothing, and internet to families in need. While stimulus checks would help keep families afloat, we aren’t guaranteed to receive them any time soon, as the bill for stimulus that House Democrats have put forth has been blocked by Senate Republicans. 

According to the CDC, an area can only be considered safe if the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks is under 10. Though Cambridge currently falls below that threshold, other factors stand in the way of reopening. First, CPS does not currently have a contact tracing system set up. It’s also doubtful that Cambridge has the capacity to test the 8,000 students, teachers, and staff in the district twice a week. Finally, any reopening will require the ability to social distance, and the schools within CPS don’t provide enough space for that. At a School Committee meeting, a speaker indicated that CPS had acquired the funding necessary to put up tents for outdoor learning. She said, however, that it’s only feasible to start outdoor learning during the spring semester. At the earliest, we will reopen in spring when it’s warm enough to attend school outdoors and testing capacity has increased; otherwise, the nearest time for a return to school would be at the start of the 2021-22 school year. 

Leanne Redman, in a recent paper, said that staying home for such a long time will have a negative impact on mental health, physical activity, and learning, and many other papers state that parental abuse issues are also exacerbated due to extended periods at home. At an individual level, there are several things you can do to help. Meeting with friends in an open-air, socially distanced environment is safe and can help you to cope with the lockdown. Additionally, petitioning your representatives and senators to pass an effective stimulus bill can help families stay sheltered and fed. Donate to food banks, and if you can, vote!