Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Schools must be open on coronavirus cases
The Connecticut Post
After all the months of planning and preparation, a new school year is under way for most Connecticut students, or will be shortly. As students, teachers and staff get used to innovations such as plastic barriers and mask breaks, the important work of educating a new year of students is ready to begin in earnest.
No one knows quite what to expect. In a best-case scenario, infection rates will remain low, everyone will be safe and something resembling a regular school year will be allowed to proceed.
Given how the last six months have gone, no one is counting on that.
Even in our current situation, where Connecticut remains in a good position on coronavirus infections compared with the rest of the nation, there are going to be cases and there are going to be outbreaks. The precautions that have been put into place can’t stop that, except maybe in districts that have opted for online-only instruction. The key will be how schools deal with it.
The only way it will work is to be upfront. That doesn’t mean releasing information only to staff that then leaks out to the public and fuels rumors around town. It means district officials taking ownership of whatever happens and getting information to the public on coronavirus cases as soon as it’s available.
An example of what is going to happen around the state can be found in Greenwich, where officials confirmed this week that three staff members in the public school system are quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19, and a fourth who was exposed to the virus is also in quarantine. The school system is following public health guidelines as to the effect on classrooms, but since students had not yet returned at the time the cases were discovered, the wider public was not initially told.
With school back in session, those rules are going to have to change.
School plans are more than likely going to be in flux. Some districts that have started in a hybrid model say they will reassess after a few weeks and potentially move to full-time in-school learning. More likely is that schools will have to go in the other direction, increasing distance learning as COVID cases increase.
Teachers need to feel safe. While anyone can contract the virus, it is more likely to be a health hazard for older people and those with other medical conditions. That doesn’t mean children are without risk, since there have been serious cases reported among young people around the country, as well. But it is faculty and staff who tend to have the greatest worries.
Adapting to this new normal requires everyone to have the most up-to-date information. Even if administrators wrongly think it reflects badly on them to have cases in their town, everyone needs to be kept up to speed. Officials will need to be flexible and act quickly as situations inevitably change.
It’s a cliche to say the only constant is change, but it’s undeniably true this school year. The only way forward is to keep everyone informed.
Flu shot mandate a crucial public health move during pandemic
The Boston Globe
What is worse than having one highly contagious, potentially deadly virus circulating widely?
How about two?
With flu season upon us, that is exactly what’s about to happen. COVID-19, which has now killed about 9,000 people in Massachusetts, isn’t going anywhere. And fearing that two simultaneous infectious diseases will overwhelm the state’s health care resources, Massachusetts public health authorities announced an unprecedented order requiring that most students get the influenza vaccine, which has historically been optional. It’s a sensible step in the midst of an already devastating pandemic.
The state’s mandate requires all children 6 months of age or older enrolled in child care, preschool, K-12, and colleges and universities to get a flu shot by the end of the year — unless they claim a religious or medical exemption, are home schooled, or are higher-education students who are off-campus and enrolled in remote-only classes. Enforcement will be carried out by the local school districts and higher-ed institutions.
A handful of other states require flu immunization for child care or preschool entry, according to state Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. But Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to enact such a sweeping order.
“A lot of the flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms are similar,” Sudders said. “And so we wanted to be able to diagnose appropriately. What’s flu, what’s COVID-19. And protect our health care resources. About 55,000 people every year end up in our hospital emergency departments with flu-like symptoms. . . . (That’s) a lot if you’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
The state has already requested a higher-than-usual number of flu shots from the federal stockpile: 1.2 million doses, which represents an increase of about 30 percent compared with previous years.
Naturally, the vaccine mandate has been controversial. A small but highly vocal anti-vaccine group organized a protest, and a couple of hundred parents and their kids showed up at the State House to demand that Governor Charlie Baker rescind the mandate. They carried signs that read, “Parents call the shots,” “Stop government overreach,” and “My kid, my choice.”
To be clear, state law gives the Department of Public Health the authority to establish what immunizations are required for school enrollment. The flu shot mandate is not government overreach — it’s about “our collective responsibility to stay as safe as possible and healthy as possible,” Sudders said.
“When you don’t vaccinate, when you choose to make yourself vulnerable, you’re not making only a choice for yourself but for others,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Is it your right to catch and transmit an infectious disease? No.”
Massachusetts boasts of having the highest flu vaccination coverage in the country for those age 17 and younger: About 81 percent got the vaccine during the 2018-2019 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that 19 percent could present a real danger amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially as students begin to return to classrooms.
Last year, tens of thousands of people died of influenza, while COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 180,000 Americans. Although the rate of Massachusetts’ coronavirus infections is low and stable, the specter of a second wave lingers as the state continues to reopen slowly. The convergence of the two viruses could very well create a perfect storm that would cripple hospitals and emergency rooms all across the state, affecting not just flu or COVID-19 patients but also all other patients who require hospitalizations.
One of the most compelling lessons from the first wave of coronavirus infections is that public health authorities must be proactive rather than reactive. Winter is coming, and the more states that follow the Commonwealth’s lead by mandating flu vaccinations for students, the better equipped the country as a whole will be for whatever lies ahead.
Challenges facing lobster industry should stay in the spotlight
Portland Press Herald
It was a good week for the Maine lobster industry. It was also kind of a strange one.
First, the Trump administration announced a historic trade deal with the European Union that would wipe out tariffs on lobsters and lobster products, reopening a market that has been dominated by Canada in recent years.
Then the industry found itself with a rare moment in the political spotlight, as a Swan’s Island lobsterman spoke at the Republican National Convention, touching off a national debate over which party is the better bet for Maine’s most iconic enterprise.
It’s a fitting time for such a debate, as lobster fishing faces a series of short- and long-term challenges, many that will require action on a national level. Solving them is going to take more than momentary attention.
In conjunction with a visit to Maine in June, as he hoped to secure again at least one of Maine’s Electoral College votes, President Trump attempted to position himself as a defender of the industry.
The president announced that he was reversing an Obama-era conservation initiative that banned fishing in an area off the East Coast, and that the lobster industry would be eligible for bailout funds related to his trade war with China.
But as it turns out, the move to reintroduce fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument was largely symbolic, as no Mainer fishes there.
And more than two months later, not one cent in aid has reached the industry, though it has been available to other similar industries since 2018.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did commit last week to adding lobstermen and women to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which was established in April to prop up farmers and ranchers who have seen their markets dry up during the global pandemic.
That’s not a gift – it’s the industry’s right. It is what the program was created for, and lobstermen should have been included from the outset.
The industry also should have been part of the trade mitigation aid, which has been available to other food suppliers since President Trump engaged China in a wasteful trade war. Maine’s congressional delegation has been pushing for its inclusion since 2018.
China responded to new U.S. tariffs by putting tariffs of their own on American products, including lobster, killing what had become the largest market for U.S. lobster.
Lobster exports to China have fallen 61 percent following the retaliatory tariffs, taking tens of millions of dollars out of the industry. In a February trade deal, China promised to buy more U.S. lobster, but have so far purchased less this year than last.
At any rate, the money lost in the last two years is gone. The industry should have been compensated, as others were.
At the same time, it’s unclear how much coronavirus-related aid will be available, and whether it will be sufficient to cover all the losses heaped on the lobster industry since 2018.
Sufficient aid is sorely needed. The lobster industry is heading into its busiest times unsure of what it will bring. The pandemic has had a worldwide impact on restaurants, casinos, cruises and events – the largest markets for lobster. Even if the trade deals with China and EU fulfill their promise, it won’t be until activities return somewhat closer to normal, whenever that is.
The industry is also fighting proposals aimed at protecting endangered right whales that they said would make their business more difficult, and dangerous. Climate change is both making lobsters more vulnerable to disease and moving them north. The boom of the last decade-plus is winding down.
The lobster industry is dominated by small business owners who go out on the ocean in small crews, often just one other person. They take pride in their independence, and in steering the industry their own way.
But the waters up ahead can’t be navigated alone. The federal government will have to be a partner, whether its in surviving the coronavirus crisis or dealing with climate change.
Maine’s lobster industry is going to need national attention – and not just in the weeks leading up to an election.
President Trump may believe that breaking rules is a way to show how broken our political system has become. However, the blatant disregard for laws and rules by which other presidents have had to follow raises fresh concerns about the longer view.
The Hatch Act may be an arcane law, but it is an important one. It restricts partisan political activity by U.S. federal employees, symbolizes the way America differs from authoritarian governments whose civil servants must stay in lock-step with those in power.
The Hatch Act has been getting a lot of attention lately as lawmakers and legal experts voice concern over the ways Trump mixes politics and official business, most recently with his decision to use the White House as the backdrop for his acceptance speech and other events during the Republican National Convention this week.
There also is concern about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violating his own department policy by speaking at the convention — and doing it during a taxpayer-funded visit to Jerusalem, a place that’s of keen interest to evangelical Christian voters. Ethics experts have criticized Trump and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for staging a citizen naturalization event at the White House during the convention.
Where did the 80-year-old law originate? Former Sen. Carl Hatch, a Democrat from New Mexico, wrote the legislation in 1939 to limit partisan activity by federal employees to ensure the government functions fairly and effectively. The act became law after employees at the Works Progress Administration, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, engaged in congressional election campaigns.
The act prohibits: running for office in partisan elections, sending or forwarding a partisan political email while on duty or in a federal workplace, engaging in political activity while wearing an official uniform or while using a government vehicle, using official authority to interfere with or influence an election, soliciting or receiving political contributions, wearing or displaying partisan political buttons, T-shirts or signs.
It applies to all civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and the vice president. There are some other exceptions. Certain executive officials, such as presidential advisers or Cabinet officers, can engage in political activities during official working time as long as federal funds are not used. Any such official must reimburse the U.S. Treasury for federal resources used in campaign activities.
Career government officials found to have violated the Hatch Act can be fired, suspended or demoted, and fined up to $1,000, though few penalties are ever levied against federal employees.
The Trump administration has made clear its feelings on the Hatch Act.
This week, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows dismissed it, telling Politico: “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.”
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent government watchdog that monitors violations, has cited the president’s top advisers on multiple occasions for violating the act. In 2018, the watchdog found six White House officials in violation for tweeting or retweeting the president’s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” from their official Twitter accounts.
Last year, the office sent a letter to the president saying Kellyanne Conway had violated the act during official media appearances by making statements aimed at helping reelect Trump. Special counsel Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, recommended firing Conway, saying that her actions “if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions.” Conway responded, “Blah, blah, blah. ... If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. … Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
Trump has said giving his acceptance speech at the White House is well within the law because the Hatch Act doesn’t pertain to the president. The Office of the Special Counsel said in a statement released Wednesday that there are certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity, among them the South Lawn and Rose Garden. It is true, the Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice president, but that misses the point.
Inevitably, White House staffers had to be involved in the logistics for setting up and delivering the speech. ... Federal employees are flatly barred from participating in political activities. And pressuring them to do so is a criminal violation under the law.
And it sends another message to the world: Rules don’t apply here.