Reports of Covid-19 outbreaks at colleges and universities these last two weeks do not inspire confidence that all will be well in primary and secondary education.
Back to school always means back to sniffles and coughs, but how school districts will sort the wheat from the chaff this autumn remains to be seen: Is that stomach ache from too many Hi-Chew candies on the morning bus, or from something more dangerous? Is that scratchy throat hay fever, or the first sign of coronavirus? Zero tolerance in the classroom for any symptom that could potentially be coronavirus is the best course of action, especially with remote-learning arrangements already in place for any student who has to sit out for a day or two while his or her head cold passes. This will happen frequently enough that it becomes normalized, an everyday thing: Even the youngest kids will understand the need to err on the side of caution, and not stigmatize classmates sent home for having an odd rash. This is the new normal.
The greatest challenge for us on Long Island will be providing adequate safeguards for the most vulnerable among us. Since the virus was first detected in March, the infection rate has been wildly uneven across Suffolk, largely dividing along economic lines. Poorer communities fare worse than wealthier ones, in the important measure of cases per thousand people. For example, Brentwood, which has one of the lowest average per-person income levels in the county, has the highest rate of Covid-19. In East Hampton town, densely populated Springs is near the top in terms of cases per thousand. In Southampton town, Flanders similarly is below the county average for per capita income but above the average in Covid-19 positives. What does this mean? It means that those who are least able to cope with the costs of missed work or inadequate medical treatment are the very people most likely to get sick.
Higher case rates in Suffolk also correlate with ethnicity to an alarming degree. The higher the percentage of Hispanic or Latino people in a community, the higher the coronavirus cases per thousand, across Long Island. A similar statistical relationship can be seen in areas with greater numbers of Black residents — Wyandanch being a case in point.
This is not someone else’s problem; it is our problem, to face together. Yes, the overall picture on Long Island appears good. New virus infections have remained low since May. But that good news cannot let us become complacent. Already, an elementary school at Aquebogue, in Riverhead town, has had to close its doors to in-person learning because of a cluster. We have to be prepared for that to happen here, and we have to strategize ahead for ways to protect those most at risk.
While the Suffolk County Department of Health has issued careful and science-based guidance to school districts to minimize the odds of an outbreak, and our own school districts have swung into action and accepted these instructions with impressive seriousness, the truth is that the county health department has only a minimal presence here on the East End. And school districts can only carry so much of this burden. Local governments, which have been preoccupied with getting businesses back in business, must turn their attention to public health outreach and preventative measures. Leadership is sorely needed in this autumn’s effort to keep residents safe. The problem will be faced not by someone else, somewhere else — not by some county official or the governor — but by us, on the town and village level: our doctors, our emergency medical personnel, our teachers and school nurses, our community. If the storm comes, we will stand strongest when we stand together.