No local institution is more important than our public schools. Even as COVID-19 cases continue to spike throughout Florida and Tampa Bay, school officials need to find a way for schools to open safely next month, with masks, social distancing, lower capacity on school buses, distance-learning as appropriate and whatever else is necessary to cut the danger to responsibly manageable levels. They also must plan for what happens when students and staffers inevitably test positive. Shutting down and starting over is not the answer. Scaling back could be.
Schooling is too important to get wrong, and too many students have effectively had little to no education since campuses closed in the spring. The students who most need a structured learning environment — that is, a classroom of some kind — are the ones being left behind. Yes, it’s important to keep students and staffers safe, but we cannot let already disadvantaged and struggling students fall even farther behind.
This cannot be a binary choice between safety or schooling. They are equally important, and neither is optional.
Guiding principles — not hard and fast mandates — are key, as is flexibility. If students and staffers don’t feel safe, the entire enterprise will collapse. Learn from other states. California, for example, will keep school buses at low capacity and have students load from the back to front and then disembark from front to back. Lots of simple practical solutions can combine to keep the risk lower. Computer modeling led by University of South Florida professor Tapas Das for all of Miami-Dade (not just schools) showed that face masks and aggressive contact tracing, combined with the existing Phase II reopening, could have effectively ended the outbreak in that county by late September. But that didn’t happen. Policy choices matter.
Also, school officials can learn from what we are fast discovering about the coronavirus, whom it affects and how, and how it is and isn’t transmitted. We know so much more than we did in March. Younger kids, for example, may not be super spreaders, as once feared. Open air is far safer than closed spaces. Social distancing really works, as do masks, so long as everyone wears them properly. And we’ll know more next month than we do now. Plans should adapt accordingly. In that way, it was wise for Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis to listen to experts and change his mind this week to require, not merely suggest, that most teachers and students wear masks when classes resume next month.
Subtlety matters. So, it’s a mistake if the state pushes too hard for a five-day-a-week in-person option. Even if it’s a goal, it shouldn’t be a requirement. Perhaps staggered days of in-class instruction every other day could cut the density of students at a school and keep the risk low. Perhaps having students in a classroom twice a week is enough to keep them engaged so that distance-learning or virtual schooling works well enough the rest of the time. We won’t know until we try, safely and carefully. Let science and facts guide the decisions, let experience alter the course, but let the goal be classroom education for whom it is safe.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news