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Those school buses you see don’t mean everything is back to normal

Brace yourself, Utah, children need and deserve in-person learning in school, but the next few months could be rocky

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Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as the get on a bus to go home after their first day of school on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — My morning bike ride — one of the more positive behavioral traditions I’ve adopted since working at home — has been complicated this week by school buses and well-dressed children toting books under their arms.

I don’t mind. It’s the kind of warm and tender scene I haven’t had enough of during the past five months — a gentle sign that the world is returning to normal.

Except that it’s not. 

Anyone watching the unfolding daily parade toward Utah schools ought to cast a wary eye toward other parts of the country, such as Elwood, Indiana, population 8,403. School started there late last month with in-person classes, then everyone abruptly was sent home for online learning after first one student, then another, tested positive for COVID-19, along with at least one staff member. The sudden shift to e-learning should last about a week, the Indianapolis Star reported.

You might also want to consider the words of Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who told the New York Times recently that “it’s simply not possible” for schools to avoid shutting down again.

“As soon as you open classrooms, within two weeks, teachers and students will get sick, bus drivers will get sick, and staff will get sick,” he said. It may be a year of on-again, off-again classroom learning.

We don’t know that for sure. Predictions don’t always come true. Utah’s rate of new COVID-19 cases has been dropping significantly since some counties, and many private businesses, began requiring masks. That’s a reason for hope. 

But then, statistically speaking, we aren’t much different from Indiana. The Hoosier state has experienced 13,134 cases per million people since the pandemic started, while Utah has seen 15,398, according to the worldometers.info site.

If you’re looking for me to cast blame here, stop it. Blaming, shaming and politicizing has become an ugly expectation in American culture — one that pushes us away from solutions, and even empathy.

No one predicted this pandemic. Yes, schools and governments should have planned for something like this. But then, maybe you should have planned better for an earthquake before it hit the Salt Lake Valley on March 18. Human nature is what it is. We’re in this together, and our kids need us to act like grownups. 

But that doesn’t make it any easier to be a teacher right now. One elementary school teacher I spoke to this week lamented that she had 27 students. The best she could do was to space them 2½ feet apart, well short of the recommended 6 feet. The rooms at her school, she said, “aren’t built for these big classes to spread out.”

Her biggest worry is that school has to go online, a teaching environment in which she feels unprepared and uncertain. In her district, parents already have the option to have their children learn online, and some teachers are being dedicated for that purpose. But if an in-person student gets sick during the year, with any kind of illness, he or she has to be given online instruction while at home. No longer can a fellow student simply bring a homework assignment over on the way home.

The frequency of childhood illnesses being what they are, this puts an extra burden on teachers, who will have to end their day in the classroom and then go online to teach those who are sick. Any student with a fever or a cough is to stay home.

And then there is a question of how to keep children in masks all day. My own daughter, who lives in Virginia, caught her kindergarten-aged daughter trading masks with a friend. Small children aren’t equipped with the maturity a pandemic demands.

Yes, as readers often point out to me, it’s true that children aren’t as susceptible to the major symptoms of the novel coronavirus as older adults, although there have been exceptions. But they can carry it to older people, such as teachers, parents or grandparents.

So, brace yourself, Utah. Children need and deserve in-person learning in school. But the next few months could be rocky, indeed. 

Just because you see school buses and happy children every morning doesn’t mean things are normal.