hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial August 2020



Weighing the risks of schools reopening


As this issue heads to press at the end of July, our region has become one of the best in the nation for steering clear of the coronavirus.

In the counties where Massachusetts, New York and Vermont meet, new cases of Covid-19 have dwindled to no more than a handful on most days. Local public health officials are keeping up with the task of contact tracing when new cases appear, and area hospitals are treating comparatively few patients with serious Covid-19 infections.

In stores and other public places, mask wearing and physical distancing are the norm, and they’re paying off. Most businesses are up and running, though often with many fewer customers than normal. Our cultural economy is slowly creeping back to life, with museums reopening and a few performing arts venues beginning to offer theater and musical performances, mainly outdoors, as a story in this issue details.

But the situation in much of the rest of the nation remains dire. As July turns to August, the cumulative number of Covid-19 deaths in the United States is approaching 150,000. The average daily count of new infections, after spiking upward since mid-June, appears to be leveling off at more than 60,000 per day. Some hospitals in states across the Sun Belt states are reaching capacity.

From Delaware to the south and Ohio to the west, nearly every state now has an infection rate so high that a visitor from our region would be required to quarantine upon returning home.
And with new cases spreading so rapidly in so much of the country, the two private labs that handle much of the coronavirus testing in the nation are becoming overwhelmed, resulting in testing turnaround times of a week or more. At that rate, test results arrive far too late to be useful to health officials trying to trace contacts and curb the spread of the virus.

All of this should prompt us to tread with great caution as we confront the next major set of decisions for our region: what to do about resuming classes at public schools and colleges.
Our cover story this month explores the plans of four area colleges to reopen their campuses over the next few weeks. Some institutions, such as Hudson Valley Community College and Vermont’s Castleton University, have opted to continue offering nearly all courses online, with most students working at home. But most, including Skidmore, Williams and Bennington College, plan to have nearly all students on campus, with in-person instruction for many courses.
To keep the coronavirus at bay, college administrators say they have developed detailed rules and protocols, informed by the latest science, for testing, cleaning, distancing and mask wearing. But these steps can’t eliminate all risk, and we know that putting groups of people into close proximity, particularly indoors, magnifies the risks.

At elite colleges like Williams and Skidmore, many students will be arriving from states with large Covid-19 outbreaks. Many will have to board planes to get here. And as the Miami Marlins demonstrated vividly at the start of this year’s truncated baseball season, a single Covid-19 infection can quickly mushroom into a large cluster of illness.

For public schools, whose students come from local communities where case counts are low, the initial risk of resuming classes will be lower. But it’s important to remember that even in the Northeast, our case counts are not zero. The virus is already here, and if we give it opportunities to spread, it will.


August 2020 political cartoon by Mark Wilson


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