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Community’s actions are key

The Auburn Citizen

Jan. 3

As hard as local educators and public health officials worked last summer to come up with plans that would allow students to return to classrooms in the 2020-21 school year, there was still plenty of apprehension about how it would go.

Would the health and safety protocols be followed by students and staff? And even if they were, would they be able to keep COVID-19 from spreading within school buildings?

The answer turned out to be yes. Students and staff, perhaps motivated by their desire to continue in-person learning as long as possible, followed the guidance. Evidence collected through contact tracing has shown that spread within school buildings was minimal.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been enough to keep several local school buildings and in some cases, entire school districts, from needing to temporarily shut down facilities and shift to all-remote learning models.

The culprit wasn’t anything that happened behind the doors of school buildings or buses. It was a wave of community spread that’s been driven largely by unsafe private social gatherings, starting roughly in October when weather began to turn colder. And it was exacerbated by too many local residents ignoring safety measures while holding gatherings at Halloween, Thanksgiving and, data is beginning to show, Christmas.

The resulting public health impact has been all too real. The death toll has climbed considerably in the past two months and hospitalizations have skyrocketed from summer levels. That also affects local health care beyond people suffering with the virus; just look at how Auburn Community Hospital had to postpone elective procedures because of the wave of COVID-19 patients needing care.

Faced with these grave concerns and the need to at least flatten the local COVID-19 curve, public health officials have no choice but to continue scrambling to contact trace and put people in isolation and quarantine. We now have roughly 10 percent of the county’s population unable to leave their homes because of the viral spread.

And that brings us back to schools. Even if health and safety measures can keep COVID-19 from spreading within school buildings, in-person classes cannot take place if too many staff members or students cannot attend because they are sick with COVID-19 infection caught outside of school, or because they need to quarantine as a result of close contact with someone who has a confirmed case.

Indeed, that is precisely what has happened, as several Cayuga County-area school districts decided to postpone reopening schools after the holiday day break, and county officials now recommending that districts wait even longer.

The key to allowing these schools to get back to in-person learning, and making sure they and all districts can continue through the rest of the academic year, has nothing to do with decisions by superintendents and board of education members. Those decisions will make themselves based on the efforts we all make at stopping the spread.

Keep social circles small and controlled, wear masks, wash hands, stay home when not feeling well, avoid large gatherings. It’s not that difficult, but it’s been proven to be effective when there’s enough of the public willing to do it.

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