For whom the school bell tolls


Let’s look at what is going on to get our K-12 students back in school and then think: “Is it really time to hear school bells in mid-August in North Carolina?”

Inasmuch as teachers, parents, students and anyone in between want it to happen Aug. 17 in North Carolina, the decision to wait and to not put one single person — student or otherwise — in harm’s way must be taken.

None of the three plans — A, B or C — as scenarios for going back to school in North Carolina are adequate at this point and time to reasonably claim safety for those going back into schools or continuing equal educational opportunities for all students. There is too much not done, too much not accomplished, too much untested and far too much risk that can come upon the state in yet-to-experience ways. Political pressures must be ignored.

The federal pressure to begin school this fall is as near a mandate as you can expect. President Donald Trump said Tuesday during a “National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America’s Schools” that he wants the schools open — all schools, period. Vice President Mike Pence was also expected to discuss the issue on a call Tuesday with the nation’s governors, Gov. Roy Cooper included. Surely, a calculated call to increase pressure on state decision makers.

As of this writing, Cooper has put off a decision to direct the fate of some 1.5 million students in N.C.’s K-12 — the 9thlargest in the country. Wake County has decided to go with Plan B if allowed under Cooper’s order on schools, postponed last week and somewhat expected this week. Plan B in Wake County means one week in school and two weeks of online classes. Plan A puts the students back in classes (all precautions standing), and C continues online instructions with children staying put at home in the near future. School systems can be stricter than Cooper’s order, not less strict.

Plan C is the only humane, logical choice under current conditions throughout the country and in North Carolina where the virus is increasing in infections. This is not a time to place vulnerable lives on the line to see if some theoretical fight against the virus works in school settings. Still, because of so much technology disparity, Plan C fails in other ways, as many teachers will agree after having sporadic experiences in April and May.

All of the maneuvering on a federal level was occurring Tuesday at the same time when Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, gave a state briefing that included the upswing of virus cases in North Carolina. Tuesday was the highest date on record for the state in hospitalizations for COVID-19. The “science” that the state has pledged to follow to make sound health decisions is pointing to increases in the spread of the virus, not decreases. If it were a downward motion, this would be a different story.

The decision to go back to school in August is in Cooper’s hands, not federal hands, and despite pressure we hope Cooper and his team will side on safety and not plan to reopen schools even under a Plan B scenario at this time. In fact, the governor may do well to slow down reopening statewide, considering the mask mandate has not shown well in the numbers.

Parents remain unsure, confused and scared much due to so much government misinformation and mixed signals. Educators are reluctant to return because of their families and selves and also concerns for student safety and the ability to educate them properly. Educators have no choice other than to follow directives to get ready, but forward thinking, optimism and motivation are not in the character suit for the deadly virus.

The children are at our collective mercy in this situation. All the families of public school children are put in unnecessary harm’s way if reopening of schools occurs too soon, and Aug. 17 is too soon.

This is not to instill more fear over COVID-19 but is a clear call to not open schools when it does not have to happen. Thousands of people in the education system have put in place — in concept — near incomprehensible precautions based on volumes of just-recently-written safety steps to open schools during a pandemic that health officials readily admit is not understood. Our children are not guinea pigs.

Not to even mention that these procedures have not been tested out in real form and time, the practicality of much of the descriptions simply does not mesh into the daily life in a school day, in a classroom, in a restroom, in a lunchroom or on a bus. One simple example — keeping elementary school children 6 feet apart for seven or more hours, even if there are only 10 children in the classroom, is just not going to happen. Administration will be putting out fires by the minute, trying to figure out first if an infection could have spread and then, what to do about it. On paper, these guidelines may put some bureaucrats at ease, but carrying them out with rowdy teens, adventurous adolescents or squirming kindergarteners simply doesn’t, can’t and won’t ring true.

It is not a matter of putting all these precautions in place. That task inherently will fail at this stage and time, and children and families will suffer. In this state we can’t even wear masks consistently — how is it that schools can be kept under tight scrutiny for any reasonable time to be protected against COVID-19?

And if heart/safety strings don’t pull at you, consider the unstable and unclear funding environment knocking at the door of an Aug. 17 full-blown opening.

How, if at all, will the next relief package seek to pave a path for schools to reopen given that decision around opening and closures are ultimately in the hands of state and local governments. Congress is not even debating a next package.

The federal government has failed miserably in giving direction and leadership with the Coronavirus. State government here has done its best, but the facts remain clear with the spread of the virus.

In two months, let’s see about opening schools. Let educators at least have time to think, prepare, train. Even three months is not outlandish, but sending children into a COVID test incubator when we know infections are going up is next to criminal. And simply, what is the rush?

We all want to hear school bells again, but it must not be at the increased ringing in of more Coronavirus tolls.

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