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Preparation and flexibility must drive plans for reopening schools

The phrase “Herculean task” comes from a Greek myth in which the god Hercules completed a series of seemingly impossible feats known as the “Twelve Labours.”

If the list of Herculean labors were updated in 2020, figuring out how to reopen schools this fall might make the cut. Superintendents, school boards and other decision-makers need to make difficult assessments about the risks of spreading Covid-19 versus the educational and social costs of keeping students out of the classrooms.

The task requires educational overseers to absorb epidemiological data and safety guidelines, to listen to the concerns of teachers and staff members, of students and their families, and to make the best of challenging times. Being a superintendent, principal or head of school in some ways resembles being a football coach. Much of the preparation work for succeeding in the fall must take place in spring and summer. And this year in particular, the school playbook has to include the flexibility to call audibles when circumstances change.

From parents’ point of view, there are many who are ready, even desperate, to send their children back to school so they can reclaim some time and space, whether they work at home or not. Distance learning has left many families exhausted, a feeling shared by more than a few teachers and administrators. However, the desire for in-person schooling is not unanimous.

In a poll in May for USA Today/Ipsos, 60% of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 said they would likely use at-home learning this fall rather than send back their children. In another USA Today poll, 20% of teachers said they would be unlikely to go back if classrooms reopen in the fall. The poll numbers are based on concerns over health and safety, not any great love for distance learning.

Parents from some of Buffalo’s disadvantaged neighborhoods are particularly concerned about the risks of coronavirus. Many inner city residents know someone who’s been sickened or killed by Covid-19. For them, the fear of illness may supersede concerns over remote learning leaving their children further behind peers whose families have more resources.

Affluent families have more money to spend on high-end computers, fast internet and tutor services. They often can better absorb the inconveniences of distance learning. Whether the coronavirus lockdown of the past few months exacerbated racial or class inequities or just brought them more into the open, the learning losses of black and brown communities during the school shutdown this spring should concern everyone charged with their education.

In the imperfect world of living with Covid-19, many schools would be wise to adopt a hybrid model of in-person and virtual classes. That has the benefit of preparing students, teachers and families for the possibility that future waves of coronavirus force schools to close again.

Katie Campos, the former executive director of Teach for America Buffalo and now a consultant, sits on the 20-member advisory council convened by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to help prepare schools for reopening. Campos, in a conversation with The News last week, said several schools she works with have found success converting to online learning, and without parents needing to chain themselves to a desk to oversee their children’s work.

“Even at the elementary grades, which I was surprised by, they figured out what is the best way we can do this, and give some independence for these kids. … It makes me wonder in what ways can our education system rise to the occasion so that parents don’t need to be completely (involved) with their kids learning virtually?”

Planning for any return to school touches many areas. A fair share of teachers, administrators and staffers, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers, are 60 or older, meaning at higher risk for complications from Covid-19. How do schools protect them?

Also, the “new normal” will come at considerable expense, in a year in which the governor has warned of possible severe cuts in state aid due to revenue lost in the coronavirus lockdown. Cloth masks, sanitizing products and adding extra school buses in order to spread out students all cost money. Performing temperature checks or contact tracing comes at a cost.

As with many other areas of the economy affected by coronavirus, financial support from the federal government will be needed to give schools the best chance to safely reopen. It’s an investment worth making.

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Story topics: Coronavirus / Covid-19