Our Opinion: Schools navigating uncharted territory

Options for the coming school year are being weighed at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham, Vt..

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The challenges facing educators and parents as they consider what the coming school year will look like during a pandemic are akin to navigating through stormy seas without a compass.

Behind them they see the horrible experience of the final three months of the last school year, with teachers, students and parents woefully unprepared as they were suddenly and joltingly thrust into remote learning. Turning back to that model could have lasting repercussions for our children's academic, social and psychological future.

"Schools play an essential role in society," pediatricians Charlene Wong and Sarah Armstrong wrote in a recent op-ed piece for The Hill. "Beyond the primary goal of education, school cafeterias provide critical nutrition to over 30 million children. School nurses administer insulin injections and asthma medications. Speech therapists and reading specialists work to ensure that children with learning differences will have every opportunity to succeed. Importantly, schools are a safe space for children who don't have a secure alternative during the day."

But looking ahead, it's difficult to chart a course for in-school instruction with so many uncertainties, so much fear and anxiety, and so much conflicting information that seems to change daily. It's like being surrounded by huge, insurmountable waves that keep rocking the boat and making it impossible to see beyond the immediate crisis.

Many feel that the potential perils ahead — most especially the possible loss of life — far outweigh any of the drawbacks of the remote learning model. For them, the choice between students academically falling behind and dying or infecting their family members is a pretty simple one.

Caught in between these conflicting positions are the school employees — from the administrators and teachers to the custodial staff and bus drivers. These are the frontline workers for our children. They know as well as anyone how important in-school instruction is, how vital it is to personally connect with their students on a regular basis. But they're also concerned about health and safety — the

children's as well as their own.

One of the nation's largest teachers' unions is authorizing its members to strike if their schools plan to reopen without proper safety measures in the middle of the global pandemic. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution on Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans.

"We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators. But if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table," Union President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

The one silver lining in all these gray storm clouds is that, as our COVID-19 numbers show, Vermont has been taking this virus quite seriously from the beginning and continues to fare better than most other states. From the governor's office to local select boards to the average person on the street, face coverings and social distancing have been fully embraced by most. Based on the data, Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine both support the reopening of schools, but are wisely leaving the details in local hands because different sized districts will have different needs and challenges.

While school officials are still ironing out the details of the coming academic year, all of them are striving to take every health and safety precaution they can think of, and many are offering families a choice between remote learning, in-school instruction or a combination of the two.

Obviously the situation is not ideal, and no matter what solution our political leaders and educators come up with, they will be loudly condemned by some for doing too much of one thing and not enough of another. Given the "rock and a hard place" position everyone seems to be in these days, we urge everyone to show a little more patience and compassion during the difficult days ahead, and be prepared for the boat to get a little rockier before calm seas return.


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