Reopening local schools during a spike in coronavirus cases is like tiptoeing blindfolded along a barbed-wire tightrope … in your bare feet, during a windstorm.
You can only guess what’s in front of you. And even if you make it safely to the other side, it’s going to hurt along the way.
You’re damned if you do: Resuming more in-person classes poses health risks to teachers, staffs and family members of students.
And damned if you don’t: Continuing distance learning is not working well for an alarming number of students.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras noted last week that 40% of students in Guilford County are failing. “It is one of the highest failure rates we’ve ever experienced," Contreras said. "It’s extraordinary."
Contreras also said the racial achievement gap is widening.
Distance learning, it appears, has more than one meaning; it also creates a wider chasm between the haves and have-nots.
Learning at home also can strain family finances if parents have to forego working to care for children. And it can present further challenges for at-risk students who already were struggling to be more engaged
So, it’s understandable that advocates for more students returning to the classroom sooner make good points.
But so do the ones who worry that a faster phase-in of classroom instruction amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases is both unwise and dangerous.
So, what the school board settled on last week is not necessarily the plan we want, but it’s the plan we need.
In a modified version of Contreras’ original proposal, the school board approved a plan that returned second- and third-grade students to the classroom on Thursday.
Other grades will resume classroom learning on a staggered schedule over the next two months.
For instance, third, fourth and fifth graders will resume after Jan. 5, sixth graders on Jan. 7 and seventh and eighth graders on Jan. 11.
High school students, who are at higher risk for the virus, won’t return until Jan. 21.
What's most maddening about all of this is that it’s subject to change, based on public health conditions in Guilford County.
Right now, those conditions are not very good.
The county’s health director, Iulia Vann, noted during last week’s school board meeting that the whole state is seeing a resurgence of virus infections and that Guilford is among the hot spots.
Hospitalization levels, Vann said, had reached their highest levels since the pandemic broke out in March. The most recent test positivity rate, she said, is about 7.3% — higher than the 5% target the board had set per her earlier recommendation.
Vann also cited new research that suggests that adolescents and adults may be equally prone to COVID infection.
Concerns about the health threat moved some board members to question why more students should be returning to the classroom at all right now.
"It's a crime to me," board member Darlene Garrett said. "If something happens, it's going to be on all of us."
Yet, with pressure mounting from both sides, school leaders are doing the best they can with the information they have.
Where this leaves us, of course, is in the same place we’ve been all along.
As Contreras said back in August: "No district in this country has the answers to this. It's just all too new. And we don’t know where this virus is going, if schools will reopen."
They still don't know.
All they can do is respect the science, err on the side of caution and be willing to change course as the situation warrants.
Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices for a quick reopening of schools and businesses have also been among the loudest critics of the very precautions that are proven to prevent the spread of the virus.
We've invoked "personal freedom" as a license to be reckless, inconsiderate and undisciplined.
But we as a community should hold ourselves accountable for the schools' no-win dilemma.
Whether classrooms can open sooner, more safely, ultimately isn’t up to the school board or the superintendent or the health director.
It’s up to us.
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