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EDITORIAL: The pathway to reopening

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INNOVATION SAVED THE DAY when it came to high school graduation. In Chatham a caravan of family vehicles carried individual grads and family members through the village, led by firefighting apparatus from around the district. Unforgettable sums it up.

Now it would be summer camp season except most municipalities have shut down their programs, creating another hardship for those parents who have a job and little choice but to lose it or abandon their kids on workdays.

And what happens in the fall? We’re about to find out.

After schools locked down in March, public school teachers and administrators cobbled together ways of connecting with as many students as possible to keep learning alive. Innovation and hard work by students, teachers, parents and caregivers held off the beginning of a dark age of public education. But we also witnessed how sluggish internet service and out-of-date digital tools leave poor kids at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their intellect or eagerness to learn. And now each school district in the state must create plans for a whole school year during which the Covid-19 virus is likely to hang around.

In May, as the rate of new cases of the Covid-19 declined statewide, Governor Cuomo began to discuss reopening schools. This week he announced that the state will approve school district reopening plans during the first week of August. It takes more than unlocking the doors and turning on the lights. What the governor wants from the more than 700 school districts are three different approaches: all students in school; a combination of in-school and distance (digital) learning; distance learning only.

There are six public school districts in Columbia County. Each one must come up with its own plans. In theory that’s the most democratic and responsive approach—don’t do it top-down, reinvent education from the bottom up. But school officials in Hudson and other districts say they have not yet received guidance from either the governor’s office or the Board of Regents.

One thing that would make the task clearer is knowing how much money each district will receive in state aid this school year. The state budget promises specific amounts to each district, but this year the governor can withhold as much as 20% of what was promised to cope with unanticipated expenses like those from the pandemic.

Funding also affects school staffing. Some teachers might choose not to return to the classroom as long as the pandemic persists. And other school employees, like bus drivers, might have second thoughts about positions that bring them into contact with the virus.

And now there’s a late arrival in the school opening drama: the federal government. The president said this week that schools “must” reopen, although that’s not his decision to make. He blames Democrats for not wanting schools to open. And the web news organization Politico reported that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has criticized schools for being too risk averse in not opening schools. “Risk is involved in everything we do…,” she told governors.

How nice of Secretary DeVos to be willing to send other people’s children to schools where the level of risk from the virus may be greater than in their homes. But what level of risk is acceptable when the government experiments on children? How would federal odds-makers measure the relative risk from one school to the next? Do we have enough pediatric ventilators in case there’s a spike in Covid-19 cases among five-year olds?

Ignore the political posturing on this issue and consider the reasons why children should be in school—learning, social development, physical fitness, monitoring for other health issues including abuse… the list of educational and personal benefits from being in school is long. And the risks might be less for students. But what about adults who live with the kids, like grandparents or people with compromised immune systems?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends students return to schools. But before presenting its specific recommendations the AAP cautions that the pandemic is changing rapidly and advises that “policies must be flexible and nimble in responding to new information.”

That brings us back to the governor’s insistence on each district having three different plans, with each district applying general principles to local conditions. His cautious approach will not be easy or quick. What it will be is an effective pathway to reopening our schools in the safest way possible.

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