When local private schools open, will they be incubators for COVID19?

Those of us who grew up in this area have felt all too keenly the double-edged sword of serving wealthy weekenders and prep-schoolers.

To the editor:

I was a teacher for 17 years. During most of that time, I worked in private, New England boarding schools. In September 2019, I decided to pivot my career and stop teaching after finishing that school year, a decision that feels eerily prescient to me now. I have watched from afar as these schools are gearing up to invite students from all over the world back onto their campuses, the rolling expansive green spaces where locals are largely unwelcome, unless they are there in a service capacity; and, I am struck by a few bothersome truths that seem to have gone unnoticed by our local population. First is the risk that opening these campuses poses to the health and well-being of our little communities as September sees an influx of SUVs, trains, busses, and airplanes filled with students from all reaches of the globe, headed once again to their idyllic playgrounds.

Right now, we are relatively safe in the Berkshires. Our COVID numbers remain steady and continue to fall as we practice social distancing, wear masks and find safe and creative ways to be in community without endangering the lives of our neighbors. But what happens when thousands of teenagers and their parents, or maids in some cases, gather on the boarding school campuses in our area? Are the school’s safety measures going to be enough to keep us all safe? Despite their most earnest efforts, data shows that they will not.

Anyone who has worked in a boarding school knows how quickly colds, flu, stomach bugs, and strep throat spread through dorms and classrooms. Any teacher, former or current, knows by the smell of a hockey locker room or a freshman dormitory that hygiene is not the constant companion of most teenagers, especially those living away from home for the first time. As students begin to fill their overcrowded dorms (two or three to a room, 25 or more to a bathroom), share food in the dining hall, ride together in elevators, pack themselves into stairwells every 45 minutes, how will we possibly control an outbreak of COVID on campus? What will we do when that outbreak inevitably finds its way into our small communities, medical facilities, and emergency rooms? And, when that happens, who will take care of the children who will certainly need medical attention? Their parents? Perhaps, but when they pull up in their BMWs, will it be too late to avert tragedy?

Those of us who grew up in this area have felt all too keenly the double-edged sword of serving wealthy weekenders and prep-schoolers. Their presence creates jobs, attracts the arts, their property ownership helps to replenish local government coffers, and we have plenty of jobs waiting if we are inclined to mow lawns, serve hors d’oeuvres or clean toilets. We also know that there is a steep price to be paid for this cohabitation, and we walk this tightrope holding a stick made of equal parts appreciation and resentment. In the best of times, this tenuous equilibrium is maintained. However, these are not the best of times and that fragile balance is headed for a dangerous inflection point as schools prepare to open for business with COVID numbers staggeringly higher than they were when these same schools shut down.

In the last decade or so, local private schools have made a stellar effort to reach out in solidarity and service to the communities that house them. Some schools have made a more robust program than others, but regardless of the relative successes of each school, the effort suggests an awareness that was not previously present. This fledgling attempt at connection is a testament to the desire on the part of both administration and teaching faculty to, at minimum, publicly recognize the existence of the population outside their campus. I appreciate the effort and recognize it as a great improvement.

I ask that we consider if it is a fair price to pay for whatever benefit we locals glean from the private school campuses in our communities, schools that are mostly set up as 501c3 corporations that do not pay taxes. The occasional pushy patron of Guido’s who has no regard for local pleasantries and the weekly town visits of well-dressed, sometimes well-mannered teenagers to local haunts, the overcrowded streets at the start of school, parents’ weekend and graduation have all been bearable thus far. Sure, we grumble amongst ourselves while we privately acknowledge the benefits of having these people around. But, what happens when the price gets higher, beyond the quotidian nuisances and into life-threatening territory? Those of us who live here know just who will fit the bill for the elitist, cavalier attitude of these schools and their patrons. I fear that our already strained purses will not even come close to covering it.

These schools are a microcosm for what is happening in the nation. I wonder when the average person will be allowed to stop serving the whim of the powerful. Perhaps when we are dead.

Jaimee Christinat

Pittsfield