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The right way to reopen school is impossible to find right now

What we all really need right now is for COVID-19 to go away, and despite a recent decline in new cases in Utah, that isn’t happening

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Rosie Fatt adjusts her mask while waiting at a school bus stop for students or their parents to pick up lunches and homework in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. School staff prepare the food bags and help bus drivers deliver the meals and homework two days a week while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Now we know — the people who crowded a Utah County Commission meeting several weeks ago to protest Gov. Gary Herbert’s mask mandate for schools this fall represented a minority.

Most of you think it’s right that students, teachers and administrators wear masks right now. 

A poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found 62% of Utahns agreeing with the governor, with 27% opposed and 10% saying they don’t know.

But that’s about all a lot of people know with any surety. Only 48% answered yes to the question of whether their local schools should open for in-person classes, and a whopping 21% weren’t sure.

We are on the precipice of deciding the when and how of school in the fall. It’s a daunting decision because no one has all the facts.

As a Deseret News report wryly noted Wednesday, people in the Davis School District recently marched in protest against a plan to alternate students between in-person and online classes, while a different group further south marched in protest against the Granite District’s plan to give parents the option of in-person or online learning. The Granite protesters wanted the plan the Davis protesters were against. 

I’m surprised more people in that poll weren’t unsure.

This is not a multiple-choice question. There is no definitively right answer about how to reopen school. Not yet, anyway. 

If we could stand on a distant hill in, say, 2025 and look back, the answer would be there, but not now; not in the middle of it all. We assume everyone wants what’s best for the kids, and that they also want to protect the older, more vulnerable people those kids come home to each afternoon. Children need interaction and they need in-person instruction. Teachers need surety, and they need protection. 

But what we all really need right now is for COVID-19 to go away, and despite a recent decline in new cases in Utah, that isn’t happening. 

And please, don’t tell me fears of the virus are overblown. Talk to someone who has had it. Talk to someone, like me, who has lost close friends to it.

Meanwhile, after the first day of school this week in the Cherokee County School District in Georgia, CNN reported a second grader tested positive. The district is holding in-person classes, and children are not required to wear masks. In Georgia’s Marietta District, five employees, including teachers, tested positive after some pre-planning sessions.

This is this kind of thing Utah schools need to avoid. A complete shutdown, after school has reopened, would be devastating. 

But schools also need to avoid a continuation of the uneven and uncertain instruction that characterized the last part of the previous school year. Children, even those whose homes don’t have the internet or enough computers to go around, need to learn, too.

And looming behind this multifaceted problem is the reality of COVID-19, which hasn’t disappeared and for which no vaccine is yet available.

As Mary Beth Griggs, science editor at The Verge, wrote in April, we’re in this for the long haul. “Victory over the virus will involve a lot of things that we don’t have yet.”

In Japan, a nation where mask wearing is part of the culture and cases have been low, a “formidable resurgence” is underway, to quote Bloomberg. In Melbourne, Australia, officials thought they had the virus licked. Now, a new wave is underway, leading to a new lockdown The New York Times said is among the toughest in the world.

We know from experience that what happens in distant parts of the industrialized world will come here eventually, even with travel restrictions in place.

In the meantime, protesters, school district leaders and everyone else in the fray deserves respect. They are part of a great civic experiment, seeking the best way to forge on with school amid uncertainty, and without all the facts. 

An art teacher at a local junior high school may have said it best when she told the Deseret News that she has never felt more unprepared heading into a new school year.

What we do know is that teachers and students in Utah will be wearing masks and will be kept apart from each other as much as possible. 

It’s not ideal, but, as most of you seem to agree, it’s the best that can be done until the virus is gone.