Coronavirus was just surging across China this time last year — more than 1,770 deaths had been tallied since the outbreak began in December — and was seeping over oceans and across borders into other parts of Asia. Americans exposed while on a cruise ship were being flown by chartered jet from Japan to quarantine for two weeks at Air Force bases in Texas and California.

Here, families with kids were decamping for ski slopes or maybe a warm beach, that is if they were traveling for February vacation, likely unaware or unconcerned about the health threat percolating on the other side of the world. In New Hampshire, where break usually lags by a week, families were making final plans. And the wild card in a presidential election nine months distant appeared to be a conflict with Iran. How quaint.

This February break is different, of course. As much as we may long for a vacation where we don’t have to worry about masks or social distancing or any other pandemic precautions — and as much as we are rightly encouraged by recent news about vaccinations, COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalization rates — we’d all do well to follow safety protocols and make sure we avoid yet another coronavirus spike on the other side of this vacation week.

A chestnut to that effect appeared in an update from Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley a week ago. It wasn’t especially strongly worded. But the potential for calamity behind it would be apparent to just about anyone by now.

It said only that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “recognizes that the upcoming February vacation may pose a challenge to districts in their efforts to limit students’ and staff’s exposure to COVID-19.” And it suggested local officials remind students and families of “best practices” — limiting the number of people in gatherings, avoiding travel in the first place, and for those who do travel, abiding by the state’s restrictions, which require a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days before reentry into Massachusetts.

Most of us don’t need such reminders.

But, for the record, since we last went on February break, the virus labeled SARS-CoV-2 has altered human existence with an efficiency like nothing else in our lifetimes.

The number of deaths attributed to this virus globally has grown in a one year to nearly 2.4 million. In the United States, which leads the world in reported cases of COVID-19, with 27.5 million, the number of lives lost to the virus in one year now approaches the size of the population of Sacramento, California. That includes more than 15,350 people who’ve died in Massachusetts, and more than 1,120 in New Hampshire.

All of those tallies don’t reflect the depths to which a pandemic has changed our physical and mental health, inflicted tragedy upon families and friends who’ve lost loved ones, interrupted our businesses and work lives, and rewired our communities. Scars from this pandemic will be visible for generations.

Sure, all of us could use a vacation.

We do have something real to celebrate, after all. The number of cases and the number of people in the hospital in both states are both headed in the right direction. And vaccinations have begun. 

And this tortuous phase of watching school children struggle with the complexities of high school or middle school or even kindergarten by computer, while sitting in their kitchens or living rooms, may finally be entering its final chapters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued guidelines on how to get those kids back inside their classrooms with their teachers, literally and not virtually.

All of this progress is fragile, however, at least until many more of us are vaccinated. And the coincidence of the CDC’s guidance coming on the same day that many families leave for vacation — potentially for activities that will toss another log or two on the fires of this pandemic — was not lost on us.

So, for yourselves, and for the rest of us, enjoy your break. But please be safe and be careful.


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