Opening public schools this fall requires more than throwing wide the doors, ushering in the kids and ringing the bells. That may come as news to a particularly loud voice in the Oval Office, but every state and local official working on the problem knows it all too well.
So even as everyone wants to see students return as scheduled, there needs to be a plan for doing so. One that ensures safety, protects everyone — students, teachers, administrators, staff and families — and inspires confidence.
We’re not there yet. Not even close.
Plans are all over, everywhere. Disjointed. Inconsistent. “In the works.”
We do have a few common denominators: Confusion. Apprehension. Fear.
Once the virus was loose in the country, it was destined to be chaotic — and for one broad, universal, perfectly obvious reason: a lack of preparation.
America was not prepared. Virginia was not prepared. Nobody was prepared.
The response suffered its own set of difficulties, too. America is a working democracy, with many players, competing centers of authority and countless voices. All these participants have chimed in, mostly in reaction to events and the effect too much resembles a cacophony of noise.
Our most prominent, visible political leadership — the White House, the state governors — get to wear logo jackets, fly in helicopters, hold press conferences, issue edicts, orders and guidelines.
But you know what? By American tradition, habit and law, public schools remain a locally controlled enterprise.
Every authoritative pronouncement you hear about K-12 public education — no matter how confident and brave, no matter whether governmental or journalistic — has to be understood in the context of who is running the show, meaning local cities and counties.
Understand that fact and you understand why things have been so fragmented and often inconsistent. The patterns — or lack thereof — were established early on.
Schools (more or less) were shuttered in 50 states, you will recall, in March and April — and were kept closed, even when it was known that it would profoundly throw life out of kilter.
After all, people were getting sick, lives were at risk, the death toll was mounting.
After that, the schools (more or less) took a stab at on-line instruction and, boy, was that ever uneven and often unfair.
Not every family has a snazzy wireless and a faultless computer setup. Children who relied upon school lunch for nutritional support faced additional hurdles. Previous social and economic inequities were amplified.
Early summer yielded to optimism. We’re going to get through this. The fall will be better.
Now doubt rules again. Indecision is rampant.
Officials face two competing points of views. Families want the schools to reopen in the fall while teachers remain wary and resistant. Everyone is watching, thinking, taking soundings, trying to do the best thing.
This business does not quit — not until a vaccine emerges.
To open schools without it means tackling a host of issues — logistics, location, transportation, social distancing and cleanliness, among many others — to the community’s satisfaction, and doing so in a matter of weeks, not months.
School officials are doing their best but it’s hard to believe they will be able to clear those hurdles in so fluid a situation. And if we cannot open the schools safely, with the public’s trust and confidence, it would be better to not rush things.
— The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.
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