EDITORIAL: Reopening schools is a life-or-death situation

Make sure your schools take every precaution possible
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

Scared to death.

Every decision, every action, every purchase, every staffing allocation with regard to reopening our schools should be based on that simple concept.

Be scared to death.

Because death is the consequence of rushing into this venture without a foolproof plan to ensure the safety of teachers, students, family members and the entire community.

It’s the consequence of doing it wrong, of not being careful enough, of not taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously, of making assumptions about human behavior not based in reality, of discounting the danger of packing too many people into close quarters without adequate ventilation or cleanliness. 

It’s the consequence of getting lax on procedures when they become routine or when we become tired of the effort.

We don’t envy the school and government officials for the task ahead of them. They are faced with an almost impossible job, and the stress of having life-or-death responsibility for so many must be incredible. And for good reason.

Have you been on a school bus lately? Even factoring in our grown-up size compared with when we were kids, school buses are cramped, suffocating spaces where we put a lot of kids right on top of one another and bounce them around for an hour or so twice a day.

Have you been into a school when they change classes lately? It’s like a New York City subway platform at rush hour, packed with kids and teachers going in all directions, stopping at lockers, chatting and otherwise impeding free movement.

Have you been in a classroom lately, tiny boxes of rooms jammed with desks within arm’s length of one another, and kids and teachers moving in and out of the tight rows. 

Have you been in a school cafeteria during lunch period lately? It’s chaos.

Have you ever watched an ordinary kid go about his or her regular day? They’re sloppy, clumsy, careless, sometimes a little rough, and they don’t always practice the best hygiene (to put it mildly).

Now put masks on their young faces and tell them to keep them on for six hours a day. Teachers and parents can tell them all day to stay a safe distance from one another and to wash their hands regularly. See how many of them strictly practice it and how often they comply, especially after a few weeks.

Oh, and then there’s the part about educating them in that environment.

The specific plans that the governor, Education Department and individual schools come up with have to factor in all the things they need to do and weigh heavily all the things that can go wrong.

They need to anticipate that there will be an outbreak and plan for ways to continue educating the kids who aren’t brought into school during those times.

There’s no point in even starting this if they’re just going to have to shut it down without a Plan B that includes considering the home situation of the students and the ability of parents to participate, especially if it means parents suddenly having to take time off of work for a couple of weeks. The key to success, if it’s even possible, is vigilance.

If you want to see what happens when we throw up our hands and stop doing the simple things that help quell the spread of this virus — social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks — just look around the country right now.

As of Saturday, the virus had infected 3.68 million Americans and killed 142,000 of us.

States that didn’t crack down quickly enough and didn’t sustain the effort when they did are seeing what New York saw at the beginning of the crisis — a giant spike in cases, overwhelmed medical workers and a shortage of personal protective equipment, ventilators and intensive-care beds.

While New York reined in the virus with strict measures, it won’t take much to put us on the path to a second wave of illness and death.

Opening the schools presents the perfect environment for a spread.

While kids don’t seem to get the illness as often or as severely as adults, they can transmit it to others, including teachers, friends and adults at home. Grandparents and others they come in contact with who have preexisting conditions like diabetes and pulmonary problems are particularly vulnerable.

We all want our kids to be back at school. Our children need a proper learning situation and they need to socialize.

Parents need it as well. Not all parents have the means and ability to stay home. Most need to be able to return to work and be confident their kids are being taught in a safe environment.

If you want a say in how this rolls out, be sure to participate in the public forums your school districts are holding. Contact school board members and administrators. Talk to the teachers and bus drivers if you can. Don’t let this reopening process go forward without your input. If you don’t like something, say something before it’s too late. Take the time to go online and read your district’s plan for reopening when it’s posted. Become familiar with it so you can raise questions and concerns, and make suggestions. Make sure there’s enough money and attention paid to ensure that students from poor families are not shortchanged in terms of educational opportunities, nutrition, masks and other needs.

Look to public health officials for guidance. And if it looks in the end like your school might not be quite ready to reopen in September, demand that reopening be delayed until it is ready.

And don’t forget to contact your representatives in Congress and make sure the federal government doesn’t cut off funding to schools, as the president has threatened. That funding often goes to the neediest students and school districts. Demand of your state and federal representatives that they support increases in funding to ensure that all schools, regardless of wealth, have enough personal protection equipment and other tools to keep staff and students safe.

Treat this situation as if your life and the lives of your children depend on it being done right.

Because the harsh reality is this: They do.

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