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Class folly

SoVaNow.com / August 12, 2020
Fortunes have been made by those who zigged when the crowd zagged, confident in the power of ideas that no one believed possible, or thought to entertain in the first place. The old Apple Computer ad campaign, “Think Different,” captured the ethos of bold thinking and calculated risk-taking that lies behind many of our most brilliant societal advancements. If everyone thought the same way, nothing new and original would come of life.

This is not the time to zig while the crowd zags.

Allow us to offer a thought for the consideration of Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols and the Mecklenburg County School Board: Going forward with four-day school, as trustees seem determined to do, is deeply misguided. As painful as it is to keep students out of school — and let’s be clear, it’s a terrible thing indeed — the current plan to return students and staff to school nearly full-time with the resumption of classes Sept. 8 is a disaster waiting to happen.

If there’s a school division in the State of Virginia with a more aggressive school reopening plan than Mecklenburg County, this is news I’ve missed. Look around — Brunswick, Lunenburg, Charlotte and Halifax counties have all opted to start the fall semester with students learning remotely at home. (Lunenburg, which had planned to proceed with a hybrid home-and-classroom instructional model with the new school year, switched gears Friday and decided to start out with full remote learning.) Even divisions that are preparing hybrid plans are talking about classroom attendance two days a week, with students staying home the other three days, or full-time distance learning for students in the upper grades to free up space for younger pupils and special education learners who most need face-to-face classroom instruction. The logic behind these hybrid instructional models is straightforward: having fewer kids inside the school building at any given time gives teachers and principals at least a fighting chance to uphold social distancing and other commonsense measures for keeping the coronavirus at bay.

Yet even after pouring vast amounts of time, energy and emotional toil into these hybrid plans, more and more school divisions are backing off and going full-time online to start the new year. You only need to glimpse the headlines to understand why. In Gwinnett County, Ga., — the state’s largest school division — 260 employees were forced into quarantine one day after schools reopened there. Earlier this summer, more than 260 children and adults contracted the virus at a Georgia summer camp. A middle school student in Greenfield, Ind. showed up sick for the first day of class. In Israel, a high school reopened and was forced to quickly shut down when the virus struck, spreading “to the students’ homes and then to other schools and neighborhoods, ultimately infecting hundreds of students, teachers and relatives,” as The New York Times reported. It’s no longer a matter of dispute that full-time school is practically an invitation for the virus to enter buildings and classrooms; the only question is what school officials intend to do with that knowledge.

They could listen to people such as Clarksville state Sen. Frank Ruff, who recently wrote in his constituent newsletter that “children seldom get the virus and, if they do, it is generally from their family and their symptoms are usually very mild.” Judging from his blase assessment of virus dangers, Ruff might as well be talking about another school shooting — nothing we can do about that problem either, thoughts and prayers all around, and by the way, have you checked the numbers on how many kids die in car crashes? Fittingly, given the profound unhelpfulness of science deniers such as Sen. Ruff, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported a few days after Ruff’s newsletter came out that COVID-19 cases among children in the U.S. rose by 90 percent over a four-week period from early July to early August. (179,990 new cases involving kids from July 9-Aug. 6, and 380,174 total child COVID-19 cases reported through Aug. 6.) So far, it’s true that few children have died of the virus, but we don’t know enough about its long-term health effects to have any confidence that kids will come out of this pandemic unscathed. Ruff offers just another example of wishful thinking being quickly overtaken by reality. COVID-19 does not care about your politics, your personal freedoms, your social media posts. Wear a mask and protect others if you believe, foolishly, that you are somehow bullet-proof to its dangers.

With such so-called adult leadership setting the example, it’ll be a wonder if kids step up to protect their teachers, principals, custodians, school secretaries and fellow adult school occupants. I actually have a lot of faith in young people taking on the responsibility to keep others safe (with a helpful dollop of peer pressure), thus setting themselves apart from the heedless behavior of adults who ought to know better. But let’s be honest: It’s unrealistic to expect constant and universal mask wearing throughout the school day, to say nothing of perfect hygiene and social distancing in hallways, buses and common spaces. Especially with the entire student body in the building all at once. (even after accounting for the number of families that opt to keep their children at home.) In a recent interview with this newspaper, Nichols emphasized the steps that Mecklenburg County Public Schools will take to keep kids safe — banning physical contact, tamping down on in-school traffic flows, enforcing social distancing. At the time of that interview (our article came out July 13), Mecklenburg had a reported 262 cases of COVID-19. On Tuesday, nearly a month later, that number stood at 446.

To be fair, outside of the Baskerville prison outbreak the current number of active cases in the county is 40, so far as we know, according to Mecklenburg County Emergency Services. But even this factoid should be greeted with caution: testing for the virus is nowhere near what it should be, and the time lag between swabbing and getting tests results back in time to act is a national scandal. (While the state health department has been unfrocked by this crisis, its sluggishness is not solely a Virginia problem, by any means.) The novel coronavirus is just dangerous enough, and just infectious enough, to thwart any confidence that we’re anywhere close to getting on top of the problems it poses. COVID-19 appears to be primarily airborne, and can jump from individual to individual without causing visible symptoms, all of which makes it fiendishly difficult to combat.

That’s the reality that confronts the School Board and Central Office administration. But let’s be clear about one thing here: No one involved with the county school division deserves your scorn or anger, regardless of the message you may take away from reading this. Educators have been placed in an impossible position by a society that has failed spectacularly at rising to the challenge of beating this pandemic. If you pick up the phone to chew out your district school board member, you’re part of that failure, too. At the same time that school boards face agonizing choices — close down and inflict untold damage on children’s intellectual and social development, or open up schools and run the risk of even worse damage — factors outside of their control are deteriorating. With community spread at unacceptable levels — Mecklenburg glows bright red on the Harvard Global Health Institute’s “Path To Zero” risk map, above — it’s folly to believe that schools can return to business more-or-less as usual without suffering dire consequences. The next move is yours, school trustees.

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