In our current politically divisive climate, there is one thing on which we can all agree on: Children need to be back in school. The disagreement comes over when that should happen and what it should look like.

Administrators, educators and members of school boards are scrambling, weighing the costs of doing their jobs — that of educating our nation’s youth — while protecting their students, teachers and staff amid the coronavirus’s spread.

The importance of being in school is paramount for American youth. School is where they learn not only math, reading and science, but where they develop social skills, exercise, nurture friendships, have access to healthy food, benefit from the support of teachers and counselors, learn to get along and maneuver in the world.

Only the most catastrophic of events — a global pandemic comes to mind — could interrupt this essential rite of instruction.

But here we are.

Both Cobb Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and Marietta City Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera originally announced a blend of giving students and their parents the option of meeting in class or continuing to work from home. The plan offered the best of both worlds, accommodating those at greater risk or fearful of viral spread and those capable and willing to return in person.

Plans changed when positive coronavirus tests climbed across the nation, in the state and in Cobb County. It was then that our two public school systems decided to play it safe. Without time for public discussion or input, the superintendents and the school board made very hasty decisions. The current back-to-school plans for both school systems aren’t “back to school” at all. Students will begin this coming school year as they ended the last — at home with virtual learning, which in too many cases means inadequate or no learning at all.

The cost of such action is severe. Both superintendents agree there is no replacement for the face-to-face instruction, the peer interaction and the benefits to mental and physical health that exist inside the walls of our schools.

In a joint statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association underlined the importance of a safe return to the classroom.

“The pandemic has reminded so many what we have long understood: that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits … We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom.”

There will be some risk. However, not sending kids to school poses substantial risk in and of itself. When both scenarios are considered, there is a strong case for reopening our classrooms now.

Look around and you’ll see busy restaurants. Walmart and Home Depot stores look much as they did pre-pandemic. The beaches over this summer have been, by many accounts, packed. Some parents have inquired whether their children will be able to play high school football, but shudder at the thought of sending them to school. Why do these less meaningful segments of our lives appear normal while the critical work of educating our youth is considered too risky a proposition?

When the coronavirus closed schools in March, our school systems were valiant in efforts to transition to remote learning, but the amount of knowledge lost in the unstructured home environment was significant. If it continues, it could turn catastrophic with the impact on this generation of students, hindering their remaining years of education.

Let’s face it, some students coast through the virtual environment, be it through inaccessibility or outright neglect. This widens the education gap in the United States disproportionately, harming low-income and minority children.

If there is anything positive to say of the coronavirus, it’s that it has not been as harmful to children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus has killed a total of 64 children under age 18. Compare that number to the nearly 200 who die of the flu in a typical year. Children do spread the coronavirus and can transmit to friends and family who may prove more vulnerable, but according to the CDC, “there have been few reports of children being the primary source of COVID-19 transmission among family members.” Even if generational transmission is a risk it is one that can be mitigated by an individual case response.

Keeping teachers safe should also factor into the reopening of schools. Surely we can make reasonable accommodations for teachers and faculty at greater risk. No one is arguing for school to look like they did pre-pandemic. The CDC has and will continue to release guidelines so that students can be welcomed back to the classroom in a safe manner. Increasing space between seats, modifying class periods to reduce class size, the wearing of face masks when possible and increasing time outdoors are all measures that can shield children and teachers from the virus while keeping them in an in-person environment. The choice of at-home, virtual or in-school learning seems a sound response, giving those with elevated risk or those who feel more comfortable at home that option. But those anxious for in-school education and all the benefits it offers saw their preference taken away.

We call on our school administrators and elected officials at the local, state and federal levels to fulfill their duty to allow children to return to a healthy classroom environment. Allow those who are ready to go back to school to do so and do it quickly. We are obliged to make it happen.

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