Last week, elementary and middle school officials announced that there would be no mask or testing mandates for schools this fall, and that students and staff exposed to Covid-19 should not be isolated if they have no symptoms. The guidance was similar to what the state released at the end of the 2021-22 school year, and is consistent with new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Children confirmed to be infected with covid should be isolated for five days and masked for 10 days in other areas.)
Booster vaccinations are also delayed. Only 59 percent of fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts received a booster shot, compared to 48 percent nationally. In addition, completeness varies by age group, with 51 percent of 5-11-year-olds, 78 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds, and 73 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds being fully vaccinated.
Among the measures advocates have called for are back-to-school vaccination “holidays,” reintroduction of mask mandates in schools and all public buildings, plans and funds to continue surveillance testing during surgery, and hours or areas in schools where masks are required in workplaces and public spaces. . They also want policies that require those who test positive for Covid to be isolated for 10 days or until students or staff test negative through rapid tests. Some have argued for mandatory masks and screening at the start of the year; and new standards for ventilation and air filtration.
“Apart from this, we have other goals. [maintaining] hospital capacity,” said Jonathan Levy, professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health. “It is incredibly important that our hospitals do not suffer. But we want and need other things. We are physically looking for a school with as many attendances as possible. We want our workplaces to be functional. We want to ensure that our supply chain is not disrupted.
The bakery’s management did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the Department of Health and Human Services has coordinated more than 480 free family-friendly vaccination clinics for people 6 months and older over the summer and through September. The Department of Public Health’s mobile providers were too small to run the clinics themselves, and the state was offering mobile pop-up vaccination clinics in places like public K-12 schools and community colleges.
Such approaches were insufficient for many practitioners and advocates. Julia Reifman, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said hospital admissions for children increased in the Southeast when the school year began without any reduction policies.
“It’s sad to know that these kids are being hurt so much. It’s sad when kids have prolonged Covid, their parents and teachers are sick and they miss work and they’re struggling economically. All of these things we can help reduce with Covid mitigation strategies,” Reifman said.
A study posted online earlier this month, but not published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that mask prescriptions led to lower rates of Covid-19 in Boston-area schools. Researchers from The FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Public Health Commission compared Covid rates at schools that lifted mask requirements in February to those that continued to cover up until June.. Schools that allowed students to be mask-free estimated there were 45 more cases per 1,000 students and staff, or about 12,000 cases, in the 15 weeks since the mandate was lifted.
That study, in addition to research from Boston University researchers published earlier this month at JAMA Network Open, found that the spread of Covid in classrooms was “negligible” when there were mandatory masks and vaccinations.
Advocates stress that if no action is taken, the consequences of the epidemic will continue to fall on essential workers, black and brown communities and those with health problems. Suleyka Soto, founder of Safe Families for Covid and a coordinator with the Boston Education Justice Alliance, said children in Boston’s public schools come from families of essential workers whose jobs are at risk. Many live in multigenerational households with vulnerable elderly relatives.
“It is imperative that our schools do not become sources of infection and transmission, and that racial equity provides the protections needed to protect students and families from this ongoing epidemic,” she said.
Dr. Lara Germanus, a primary care physician and educator at Harvard Medical School, pointed out the mother and daughter she saw on video tour. Germanus suspected his daughter had COVID, but his mother said there was no way the rest of the family could be isolated. They also did not live within walking distance of a testing site, did not have tests at home and spoke Portuguese, and struggled to navigate websites to find nearby testing sites.
“The tools are always accessible to black and brown communities that have been hit hardest by the epidemic,” Germanus said. “Furthermore, older people are less likely to have access to computers or to easily navigate the complex online tools you need to access vaccines, tests and treatments. This is not giving people access to the devices. This is a display of tools within easy reach of highly wired white and rich people.
Advocates for the disabled have also lamented that the lax attitude towards Covid has deprived them of public spaces. Ellen Leigh, a disability advocate and member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, pressed for universal masking as well as distance learning options, during surgery.
“This is public health. We can do better by being realistic about planning for the future and thinking of new ways to keep us all safe,” Leigh said.