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Reopening schools — no easy answers

The Millerton News Editorial

Should schools reopen come fall? That is the big question for politicians, school officials, teachers, parents, even students — as the world tries to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will look by the start of the next academic year. Certainly with numbers spiking across the U.S., we’re not overly optimistic that school campuses will be incredibly safe spaces for our young students — children ages 5 and older — who may be unable in all reality to social distance, stay disease free and keep from bringing COVID home to others in their households.

So where does that leave us? With remote learning, which we can probably all agree is a less-than-ideal solution for educating young minds. Think about it: Do you truly believe students get the same quality instruction from their teachers, who, bless their hearts, are doing their absolute utmost to impart their years of wisdom and expertise on what we can only imagine are wandering young minds, distracted beyond belief in a home environment (where there is constant access to television, cell phones, video games, snacks, the outdoors, siblings, friends, parents, pets, toys, games, sports, and any number of other things this writer is too outdated to think of to entertain young minds)… all outside of view from the Zoom screen teachers are limited by, with which they interact with their students? 

Of course not. It would be an impossible task. And it is by no means the teacher’s fault. Nor is it the school’s fault. Nor is it the state’s fault. It’s really no one’s fault. It’s due to the virus. We’re in the midst of a deadly global pandemic — an emergency health crisis. We must deal the hand we’ve been dealt, which is exactly what states and school districts are trying to do.

President Trump has said that schools must reopen come fall or risk losing federal funding. On Tuesday, July 7, Trump said that he wants kids back in classes despite COVID cases rising to more than 3.9 million across the U.S. (as of Tuesday, July 21).

“We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools to get them open, and it’s very important. It’s very important for our country,” he said. 

Trump argued it would be more costly to keep students home than to have them physically return to school. He also alleged that “people [want] to make political statements or do it for political reasons… so they keep the schools closed… No way.”

That’s all well and good, Mr. President, but is it realistic? As Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday, July 13 (with a slightly heightened sense of responsibility compared to our president), “If you have the virus under control, reopen. If you don’t have the virus under control, then you can’t reopen. We’re not going to use our children as the litmus test and we’re not going to going to put our children in a place where their health is endangered. It’s that simple.”

He’s right. It is that simple. 

Around the Harlem Valley, our school districts are doing their best to draw up reopening plans, along with guidance from the state, its Department of Health, its Department of Education and various other agencies, for in-person learning for the 2020-21 academic year. There are, of course, contingency plans being made for distance learning in case the coronavirus is not under control by then, or if we face that dreaded second wave. 

According to the Sunday, July 19, New York Times, there is real cause for concern. The paper reported on a new South Korean study that indicates reopening schools will lead to more cases of COVID-19.

“The study of nearly 65,000 people found that children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero,” wrote the Times. “And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults.”

The article continued to state that “the findings could mean clusters of infection in children of all ages…” adding that “the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute called the study ‘one of the best’ to date on the issue.”

It’s very possible that whatever plans our local school districts begin the year with may change, as the pandemic is a fluid situation and virus numbers have the potential to shift. Administrators must be prepared for that, as well as teachers, staff, students and their families. So, too, must employers, as parents may need flexibility when it comes to child care and scheduling.

There are so many unknowns. Science is trying to catch up and provide answers. The race for a cure is surging forward at break-neck speeds. More medical knowledge would give states and educators additional data to base their decisions on, but there’s no way to predict when that data will be forthcoming. The resulting frustration and confusion is understandable, but we commend those working on important pieces of the puzzle — like if and when to reopen schools — to the best of their abilities. 

The goal is to keep everyone safe. That means students, of course, but also our teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, coaches and each and every staff member in all of our schools -— not one of whom probably ever thought they would have to risk their life to do their job.

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