By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Editorial: School COVID plans are a moving target
08072021 FIRST 4.jpg
World Language Academy students are welcomed be faculty and staff Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, for the first day of the school year. - photo by Scott Rogers

Regardless of the frequent and often shrill voices on social media offering tons of unsolicited advice, no one has a perfect plan for the reopening of public schools in the midst of a seemingly never-ending pandemic. Because there isn’t one.

Yet schools are reopening, and perfect or not, local system administrators have gone to great lengths to let students and teachers know what to expect as they try to recover from the severe challenges of the last school year and return to something approaching a normal day in the classroom.

For both the Hall County school system, which started classes Friday, and the Gainesville city system, which opens next week, the focus is on avoiding the necessity of returning to virtual learning for large numbers of students, maintaining a typical school atmosphere as much as possible to lessen the damage done to students, and making efforts to keep students and staff healthy and safe.

Neither system is mandating the wearing of masks. Both are recommending that masks be worn.

The issue of masking is both highly controversial and divisive. Many parents insist masks should be required of everyone; others would be outraged if that were the case. There are intelligent, logical people on both sides of the argument.

The local schools have opted to allow parents and students to decide whether they will don masks or not. That decision is subject to change, depending on how long the current spike in COVID-19 cases continues, and whether other mitigation factors slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

That is the unknown factor for which we all must prepare. The rules for opening day may not be the rules a month from now, or even a week from now. If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it is that things can change drastically in a hurry.

We don’t profess to know the perfect solution to educating thousands of students in a health crisis while keeping adult staffers safe as well. But there are some things we believe to be true:

We believe that both of our local school systems have strong, proven professional leadership and are committed to the well-being of the students and staff with which they are entrusted.

We believe that students need the stability of in-person learning opportunities in order to advance academically. Our high-tech world makes virtual learning a possibility, but it is not the best option for most students.

We believe that beyond academics, there are powerfully positive factors to consider in allowing students to socialize together, enjoy one another’s company and be part of a group setting.

We believe that while data so far shows most students don’t show severe symptoms with COVID-19, there are also thousands of adults involved in the educational process, from teachers to bus drivers and custodians, and that any plan for schools has to take the adults into account as well.

We believe that the available vaccines reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death from COVID, and that those who have not been vaccinated should be encouraged to do so. If a financial bonus for staffers who are vaccinated works as an incentive, the money may be well spent.

We believe that appropriate masks, properly worn, can help to prevent the spread of the disease. Unvaccinated staff should be required to wear a mask.

We believe that no student should be the subject of scorn, ridicule or bullying due to a personal decision on whether to mask.

Superintendents Will Schofield of Hall County and Jeremy Williams of Gainesville have both noted the impact of the COVID era on the mental health of school-age children and have expressed concerns that not returning to classroom settings and some semblance of normalcy will exacerbate mental health issues that have become increasingly obvious. Those concerns resonate with the ring of truth.

It is important that parents know what to expect from the coming school year so that they, too, can begin to return to more normalized routines, including a return to work for many who unexpectedly found themselves in the role of “at-home” monitor of virtual lessons in the last school year.

The local schools have done a good job of letting parents know what to expect, but the overriding caveat to this point is that things may still change.

Unfortunately, some of the toughest decisions related to what is best for students across the country have become fodder for debates rooted in politics rather than education.

If our community will rally around the concept of vaccination, we can beat back this most recent spike in severe COVID cases and hospitalizations and continue moving toward the return to pre-pandemic routines, which the early days of summer seemed to promise as possible. If not, our local numbers are likely to worsen, the numbers of those who are gravelly ill are likely to climb and the schools will be forced to resort to whatever measures constitute “Plan B.”

Let’s hope we don’t have to go there.

Friends to Follow social media