The Center for Disease Control reports that on a 10-year average Vermont loses 57 people a year to seasonal flu. The total deaths in Vermont from Covid-19 stands at 54, with seven months left. Keeping the case numbers low, and, hence the rate of mortality low, is our overriding objective. It’s the governing factor in all the public policy decisions being made, and thus far, Vermont’s excelled.
The question going forward is how we use this reputation in the effort to return things to a rough sense of normality across the economy. It doesn’t work for us to come out of the pandemic with the nation’s best health stats if we fared the worst economically. And it doesn’t work to pace the nation with the reopening of the economy if we experience a second wave of the pandemic that’s worse than what we first experienced.
It’s about balance, and it’s an art as much as it is science. We want to be smart about it, but being smart in any perfectionist sense is close to being hopeless when dealing with the public throngs. How do you socially distance 330 million Americans and have things be normal?
You don’t. Things won’t be “normal” until we have a vaccine and even then the trek back will be longer than the fall that got us here.
Let’s make the challenge local. It’s almost June and in three months school will restart. Already administrators — preK-12 and higher ed — are trying to decide what that might look like and they are flying blind.
For starters, let’s understand there is almost nothing parents and their students want more than a return to school — in the classroom, with their teachers, or professors. The thought of another half-year or year similar to what we’ve had since mid-March is paralyzing.
The hope beyond all hopes in Vermont is that June, July and August show no new cases and no new deaths, offering confidence that opening school on a regular schedule is possible.
The problem is that school administrators can’t make that assumption and they need to put plans in place now to prepare for September. Those plans need to include adequately trained staffing, school sanitation needs, and, most problematically, social distancing, which includes not only what happens in the classroom, but what happens in the hallways, the cafeteria and traveling to and from school on the bus. And what about after-school sports? How do you stage classrooms so students are six feet apart and how to you “encourage” students to always keep their masks on? How do you split classes, or run double bus schedules, or have adequate medical help without hiring more people, at a time when it’s estimated that the state’s education fund will run about $170 million sort, forcing school districts to cut costs, which means cutting positions?
Compound these questions with the equally if not more vexing challenge of dealing with students who, if they are forced to learn remotely in the fall will have lost the lion’s share of a year’s worth of education. How do you make that up?
You don’t. Which is why we can’t snuff out every little ember of the virus before we decide to return to some sense of normalcy. We need to do all that we can to be reasonably safe, and to keep others around us safe, but we can’t force educators to create an environment, or to force practices that are both unreasonable and unaffordable given our circumstances.
It’s another instance when we can’t allow perfection to be the enemy of good. And we don’t have much time to thread that needle.
by Emerson Lynn