With a worldwide COVID-19 outbreak spreading locally at an alarming rate in recent days, a handful of area superintendents may soon recommend the cancelation of school-sanctioned field trips and travel.
Over the past week, at least two local superintendents within The Middlesex East's coverage zone have notified parents and residents that temporary travel bans are being considered as Massachusetts health officials try to control the climb in COVID-19 cases, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-COV-2.
In severe forms, COVID-19 causes a serious lung infection that requires medical intervention. Present research, such as early medical reports published by the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates patients most commonly experience symptoms like a dry cough, low grade fever, sore throat, and headaches and fatigue.
In a weekly newsletter released to Reading residents on Monday morning, School Superintendent John Doherty notified the community he is considering the imposition of broad restrictions on school-sanctioned field trips and excursions. Just a day later, Tewksbury officials, breathing a sigh of relief after the town survived a COVID-19 scare related to international travel, revealed they too are examining the extension of a similar policy.
Both school officials have pointed out that Mass. Governor Charles Baker, himself referencing advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has urged all public and private learning institutions to carefully reconsider their international travel guidelines.
“We are closely monitoring this situation [for] all of our field trips, both domestic…and international abroad, and will be making decisions on whether or not to hold any or all of these trips in the near future. This includes but is not limited to upcoming trips to France, Quebec, Ireland, Nature’s Classrom, New York City, and Boston ” wrote Doherty.
"Currently, we are examining all planned student travel and field trips," Malone would advise Tewksbury residents a day later. "Governor Baker has asked that all international student travel be cancelled. We are also examining United States based travel and even smaller in-state field trips."
The emergency measures, which could impact excursions that have already been booked and paid for by parents, are being eyed as the Middlesex region quite suddenly finds itself at the center of a Massachusetts outbreak that was just weeks ago limited to a trio of suspected cases.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the last time the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) updated its statistics regarding the potentially fatal virus, 41 of 92 "presumed positive" COVID-19 cases were from Middlesex County. Also on Tuesday Governor Baker declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts as 51 new coronavirus cases were reported, bringing the total in the state to 92.
Also just this week, news emerged that an elementary school student in Arlington has tested positive for the illness after a relative reported being exposed to the virus while attending a Biogen conference in Boston late last month.
Arlington officials have since reported that 30 other pupils, who had close contact with the infected child, have since been placed on a 14-day self-quarantine. Lexington schools, also part of the Middlesex League, has also reported that the parent of an elementary school student has tested positive for the contagion.
In yet another close call, Tewksbury's public health leaders last Thursday ordered a handful of teens and high school staff to self-quarantine after it was discovered the group, who had recently returned from a trip to Italy, had been on a flight out of Germany with an infected passenger.
Since issuing that directive, Tewksbury Schools Superintendent Christopher Malone has sounded that all-clear, as none of the school trip participants are evidencing signs of being ill.
"Currently, there are no cases of self-quarantine specific to Tewksbury Public Schools, and we have passed the 14-day cautionary period with the students and staff who participated in the school trip to Italy in February," Malone advised the school community this Tuesday.
Risk still deemed low
Technically, Mass. DPH still characterizes citizens risk from COVID-19 in the state as low given the small number of confirmed cases to date. Infectious disease specialists, though worried widespread outbreaks would overwhelm hospitals and critical healthcare infrastructure, have also stressed that roughly 80 percent of people who contract the virus will experience mild flu-like symptoms.
Most recent data available from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the disease's case fatality rate is around 3.4 percent — substantially higher than seasonal influenza — but the international body agrees that the most at-risk population consists of the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
More importantly, according to a number of public health and state education officials, the SARS-COV-2 virus is expected to carry the lowest risk to children and young teens.
In fact, according in its most up-to-date guidances, the CDC has advised pediatricians and other medical professionals that the youngest COVID-19 patients appear to experience some of mildest forms of the disease.
However, there are some public health experts who are worried that children and teens, though unlikely to suffer bouts of life-threatening illnesses from COVID-19, could in the event of a larger outbreak easily spread the virus in confined spaces like classrooms and schools.
For that reason, leaders in a number of countries such as China, Italy, Japan, and South Korea, after struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, have ordered schools and universities shuttered. There are also some concerns that children might unknowingly spread the virus to vulnerable populations, like elderly family members, as asymptomatic or mildly-effected carriers.
Thus far, federal officials, based upon reviews of most-recently available research, have been unable to determine if COVID-19 can be spread during the incubation phase or in circumstances where a person experiences no symptoms of the illness.
"Asymptomatic infection with SARS-COV-2 has been reported, but it is not yet known what role asymptomatic infection plays in transmission. Similarly, the rate of pre-symptomatic transmission (infection during the incubation period prior to illness onset) is unknown," explains a recent CDC report.
Given those lingering questions, not to mention the fast-changing dynamics of Massachusetts' outbreaks in recent days, some municipal officials say its best to prepare for the possibility that cases are coming to their cities and towns.
Late last week, Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin, after hosting preparedness meetings with the city's top school and public safety managers, insisted citizens can do their part by taking proactive steps to limit their potential exposure to COVID-19.
"We're following the lead from the [US Center for Disease Control] CDC) and Mass. public health," said the mayor. "Hopefully, this ends up being more contained in the United States, but we're trying to be realistic. It will spread."
"Really, what we're trying to do is give out the standard information about how people can protect themselves from this virus," said the city executive. "This will pass. We don't want people panicking. We want everyone to do the best they can in terms of practicing good hygiene."
Unlike many of its neighbors, Woburn had enacted prohibitions on school-sanctioned travel abroad and out-of-state long before COVID-19 emerged in China's Hubei province a few months ago. That policy was based off of concerns about legal liability exposure for trips involving third-party travel agencies and vendors.
According to superintendents in Reading and Tewksbury, unlike in Woburn, the local travel restrictions being pondered for their districts would be temporary in nature. However, both school leaders acknowledged the bans could prove controversial, especially if involving already-arranged student trips.
“We realize that cancelling these trips may result in a financial burden for families, because it would mean a loss of payments that have already been made,” Reading’s Doherty acknowledged in his newsletter to the community.
"We are attempting to balance smart decision making with creating unnecessary panic. Our own public health department has advised us to 'proceed with caution'," Malone subsequently noted in his own letter to parents.