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The next school year could be a challenge

Many questions remain as school officials across Tennessee and the nation weigh options for getting children back in class for the new school year, which begins in August. It’s a question that is on the minds of not only school officials, but parents, also.
Most teachers will tell you that virtual classes are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Even so, both teachers and parents fear that schools might hastily reopen without taking the necessary precautions to shield children — and everyone in the school community — from infection.
If children are infected with COVID-19 they can easily become spreaders of the virus by bringing it home.
Most teachers fear that students lost ground when the pandemic hit last March and schools were closed down. Many students did not and still do not have access to a computer to do virtual classes. Some are not disciplined enough to do the classes without supervision, and many do not have the needed supervision. Younger students are easily distracted at home.
Another problem is that parents who need to work and can’t stay home to care for their children during the school day would prefer their children back in class despite safety concerns. This alone shows the balancing act for all ahead.
There are other questions to find answers for, such as how is social distancing going to be managed, especially on school buses? Where will students eat their lunches? Are masks really going to be worn all day?
School districts in the area are already asking parents which learning options they would prefer — classes at school or virtual learning. It’s a start. But schools will have to get a lot better at communicating with parents in the days ahead.
The decision is not simple because the pandemic continues to evolve. Just this week, Carter County had its highest number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic hit in March. As of Thursday, 17 new cases had been reported this week in Carter County.
When and how to reopen schools is one of the toughest and most sensitive decisions on local political agendas, and both the Elizabethton and Carter County school systems have new school directors, who must deal with the issue. There are many questions to answer. Perhaps the number one question on everyone’s mind is how will students and teachers be kept safe? Next, how will schools ensure students return and help learners who have fallen behind during school closures?
There is insufficient evidence on risks of the virus’ transmission. Everyone, confinement will be lifted gradually, with many question marks on how the process will be managed, to a great extent because there are many characteristics of the virus that we just don’t know.
Schools are not only places of learning. They provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support that are a life security for the most disadvantaged, and this applies to all school districts, from low to high income. Add to that the social isolation from friends and teachers, anxiety, displacement and possible death of loved ones in the worst cases, and the psychological toll of school closures rises by the day.
This is not a simple matter of weighing risks and benefits. The absolute priority is to safeguard the lives and well-being of communities, including children and teaching personnel. Even if dates cannot be announced yet, planning for school reopening should already be underway.
School reopening during this global crisis is not a return to normal. We must do things not only differently, but better. Just as the most marginalized students were most at risk of being left behind by distance learning modalities, they must be the priority of any back to school strategy.
The best interest of the child is the main objective. The aim is to reopen better, healthier and safer schools. We must seize this opportunity.