Contact tracing could be challenge for schools

Public transport, vague tracing efforts have some worried

LET’S PRETEND MARIA is a 16-year-old student who goes to Madison Park Vocational High School in Roxbury, while living in Hyde Park. It’s October, the Boston School Committee has decided on a hybrid model for her sophomore class. Maria takes the 32 bus through Roslindale to Forest Hills three times a week and picks up the Orange Line to Roxbury Crossing.

 Now imagine only a third of the school’s students are physically there— around 300, and one student tests positive for COVID-19. This is when, according to a spokesman for the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Public Health Commission would step in  and conduct contact tracing, a method of preventing the spread of infectious disease by identifying people who have it, their contacts, and others who might have been exposed. 

For COVID-19, this includes asking all of those parties to isolate at home voluntarily for 14 days while waiting for a test result. The commission, which has led tracing for the entire city, would “perform all official contact tracing and case investigation for confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 for the City of Boston, including those that attend or work with BPS,” according to school officials.

 It sounds straightforward, but District Five City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo says that contact tracing for students won’t be that simple and requires better planning. Now that Boston Public School officials are delaying the start of school for students to Sept. 21, there’s more time for consideration.

The current BPS plan does not include mandatory testing and references contact tracing three times, handing off the job to the commission at each point. Tracing is expected in some form or another because COVID-19 cases are anticipated, with officials saying on page 12 that they may  have to close classrooms, schools, or even “the entire district” for a period of time.

Noticeably absent from all plans is one phrase: public transport, with the only reference to the MBTA focused on free passes and mask wearing. That, Arroyo says, is concerning. A 2018 study from the office of Boston City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu found that nearly two-thirds of teens surveyed used the T in the morning, and 71 percent used it to get home.

BPS has already ruled out a return to full-time, in-person instruction for the beginning of the year, but has not yet decided if learning will be entirely virtual. It’s inevitable that students will be returning in some form or another before a vaccine is widespread, and, subsequently, taking the T.

In the draft of Boston’s reopening plan, significant efforts are made to adhere to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s guidelines to reduce the amount of children on each bus for social distancing, but this will inevitably mean more youth will have to take public transportation. Arroyo said this is rooted in having to fund extra buses, and deal with an ongoing bus and bus driver shortage.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency is expanding service on 23 bus routes beginning on August 30 to reduce crowding. Some of the routes, he said, tend to carry students to and from schools so the T is preparing for the possibility of at least some in-person learning.

“The level of uncertainty around what schools would be doing for learning models was a contributing factor to the MBTA reserving 5 percent of bus service hours as ‘flexible’ hours,”‘ he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Arroyo said in China and South Korea contact tracing has been so advanced that it can even break down where sick people were sitting on public transit, and which people around them were or weren’t ill. “We don’t have anything similar to that,” he said. The onus to resolve the issue shouldn’t be on BPS, he said, but on the MBTA, MassDOT, and even Gov. Charlie Baker.

The concern is that COVID has hit some neighborhoods worse than others, but on public transport, the kids all melt together, then go to spaces with high indoor concentrations of people for extended periods of time. In East Boston, where youth make up 12 percent of the total BPS population, the positive test rate is at 8.8 percent, far above the state’s average test rate of 1.5 percent.

Districts must present their fall school reopening plans to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education later today.