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Opinion: Reopening schools necessary but difficult task
Lakeview Academy students use computers in the school's Cleveland Lab for study.

The admonition that those tasked with making a difficult decision are likely to be “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” seems somehow quaintly optimistic compared to the complexities of the decisions that now must be made by school officials locally and nationwide.

When Solomon demonstrated the biblical wisdom for which he is so revered, he was only deciding the fate of a single child over whom two would-be mothers fought; those asked to  decide the fate of the coming school year are dealing with thousands of children … and teachers .. and custodians … and cooks … and bus drivers ... and parents … and …

Nationwide, the debate is much the same as it is here at home. Is it feasible to attempt to have some semblance of a “normal” school experience with students sitting in a classroom with a teacher, or does caution dictate a return to the remote learning options that marked the end of the last school year?

As a corollary to that conundrum, if indeed you do return students to a classroom setting, what can you do to keep them and school employees healthy in a pandemic environment?

Despite the outpouring of opinions available via social media platforms and parking lot conversations, there are no easy answers. None. And no matter what decisions are made, there will be those convinced they are the wrong ones.

Just to make the debate more interesting, a bit of a political twist was added to the conversation this week as well, with the president insisting that schools reopen no matter what and suggesting that failing to return to the classroom is akin to supporting Democrats in the upcoming general election. He also threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t.

But this has to be an issue addressed at the local level. A “one-size-fits-all” mandate from Washington is not going to prove viable for every community.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo
  • Mandy Harris

There can be little doubt that the educational needs of most students can better be served in a structured classroom environment rather than through remote learning. Conducting classes at home via the internet is a viable fallback for an occasional day of inclement weather, but is not a long-range substitute for instruction provided in person by a certified professional.

As noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has endorsed the concept of reopening schools for the coming year, schools provide “academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity …”

It is a given that being in a school setting is a good thing for most students. But being “in school” demands large groups of youngsters and adults together in confined spaces, breathing each other’s air, touching each other, sharing each other’s germs, and generally doing all of the things we’ve been told not to do as we have socially isolated and sequestered ourselves over the past five months.

Which leads back to the question of whether returning to school is the healthy thing to do if we want to have any chance of seeing sustainable progress in fighting the COVID virus. Anyone who has ever had a child in first grade knows what it’s like when every student in the classroom keeps sharing a cold or strep throat back and forth; what happens if it’s the virus they are all sharing instead?

It’s not just a matter of students in the classroom. What about on a school bus? What about in a crowded cafeteria, or in a gym? Participating in extracurricular events? How do you completely refashion a traditional school environment to allow for a typical school day that by necessity has to be totally different from those of the past?

The health-related decisions made by school leadership as we head into the traditional opening of the school year affect not just students, but also all of the employees of the school systems, and the parents and families of those students and staff.

That’s a heavy burden to carry.

While groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics favor getting kids back to class, they also recommend a number of measures to ensure the health of all, some of which are not going to be easily, or inexpensively, done.

Physical distancing in classrooms and school facilities, alternatives to school buses, face coverings, rotating teachers from class to class instead of students, health testing and screenings, disinfecting and sanitizing, and on-site health services are all among the recommendations of the AAP.

Just to add another ugly twist of fate, the schools will have to enact all of these changes at a time when governments are cutting budgets and reducing money available for all government services, a direct result of the economic damage done nationwide by the virus and its catastrophic effect on businesses and personal finances.

We are convinced that schools do need to reopen, but very cognizant that doing so is going to be a massive undertaking fraught with the potential for problems. We are fortunate to have strong leadership in both the Hall County and Gainesville school systems, but also have to acknowledge that those leaders are facing what are likely the most difficult challenges of their professional careers.

There is also the reality that whatever decisions are made, there has to be the flexibility to change directions quickly if necessary. There is no guarantee that what makes sense in August will continue to make sense in October.

Hard times. Difficult choices. Life-changing decisions, with only one thing that is certain: Whatever is done isn’t going to make everyone happy.

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