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Rob Schofield: As schools reopen, we’re rolling the dice with people’s lives

Rob Schofield: As schools reopen, we’re rolling the dice with people’s lives

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North Carolina is now almost five months into the massive societal disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s more than understandable that just about everyone — especially parents of young children — is going a little stir crazy. The weather has been stifling, the news has been mostly sobering, a vaccine remains several months away at best, and the utter incompetence and moral bankruptcy in the White House’s handing of the crisis remains absolute.

At such a moment, it’s not at all surprising that people would latch onto any shred of hopeful information that would seem to offer a path back to normalcy.

And so it is that at the beginning of August 2020, that North Carolina’s public colleges and universities and many K-12 schools are preparing to take the reopening plunge. Buoyed somewhat by encouraging reports that children and young adults are, very generally speaking, at lower risk of contracting and falling ill from the coronavirus (and pressured by powerful conservative politicians) many education leaders are throwing most caution to the wind and, as the saying goes, “going for it.” (It should be noted that while they may be at a lower risk than some, young adults can still face very serious consequences, including death, after contracting COVID-19.)

Across the UNC System, for instance, students are already moving into dorms and contemplating the start of classes — many which are scheduled to take place in person.

Meanwhile, at the K-12 level, numerous districts are scheduled to reopen for in-person schooling — at least on a limited basis — in less than two weeks.

Of course, the giant fly in this ointment is the hard and undeniable fact that the pandemic is nowhere close to under control. As The New York Times reported on Sunday: “Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus coordinator, said on Sunday that the nation was in a ‘new phase’ of the coronavirus epidemic that was much more sprawling across the country than last spring’s outbreaks in major cities like New York and Seattle.”

Meanwhile, there remains much that we do not know about the role that children and young people are playing in the pandemic. A new study released just last week from experts at Children’s Hospital of Chicago found sobering evidence that infected young children — even those who are asymptomatic — may carry large quantities of the virus and be capable of spreading it.

Now add to this the enormous difficulty (most would say impossibility) of getting children to consistently abide by social distancing, handwashing and mask-wearing protocols — which many communities are having enormous challenges in getting supposedly responsible adults to comply with — and the situation looks that much more worrisome.

And, college kids? Who really thinks that it will be possible to safely house thousands of full-of-life 18- and 19-year-olds in crowded college dorms without creating multiple new virus hot spots?

Heck, at UNC Pembroke on July 31, the university itself tweeted out an invitation to its thousands of followers to attend a Saturday night welcome-back party on the campus quad featuring ice cream and music.

And at UNC Chapel Hill, the campus “CV-19 dashboard” listed a total of 173 positive cases among students and employees (13 new cases in the last seven days) as of Saturday, Aug. 1 — two days prior to the start of dorm move-in week.

What all of this means is that North Carolina education leaders are engaged in one hell of a roll of the dice. The risks to kids may be relatively small, but given the magnitude of the reopening, it seems certain there will be a number of very sick young people and, quite possibly, some tragic outcomes.

And, of course, that doesn’t even take into account the thousands upon thousands of teachers, professors, custodians, housekeepers, food service workers and administrators (many of whom are at-risk) who will interact with students every day. How many beloved individuals in these ranks will the virus claim? And at what point will such losses cause sufficient anger and sadness in the public to inspire a change?

After having had to inform his school community about the deaths of a 19-year-old custodian and a 53-year-old after-school director recently, Fort Braden, Fla., school principal Jimbo Jackson called on his state’s leaders to postpone the return of students and rethink their entire reopening scheme.

“As a school leader, I cannot continue to see my school family mourn our friends and then tell them that ‘I can keep you safe when you come to school,’” Jackson said.

It’s tragedies like these with which North Carolina education leaders will almost assuredly have to grapple regularly in the weeks ahead — especially if concerned faculty and staff who see themselves and their colleagues in harm’s way continue to raise their concerns.

That said, when it comes to the State Board of Education and the UNC Board of Governors, it’s possible that some of the power and emotion of such pleas will be difficult to convey. You see, those boards continue to conduct their meetings in an online-only fashion due to the pandemic.

Rob Schofield is the director of NC Policy Watch.

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