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  1. Opinion

Tampa Bay’s schools are reopening. The challenge now is safety | Opinion

Congress, state, school districts and parents all have a role.

Florida educators and parents have wrangled for months over whether to reopen schools, but make no mistake: They are reopening. In a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of students are expected back in the classroom across the Tampa Bay area. The issue now is how to open safely — and how to respond if an outbreak of coronavirus imperils students, teachers or staff and their families. Everyone has a role to play, from government to private citizens, in making this move a safe, responsible step toward more fully reopening society.

The Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco school systems are scheduled to reopen Aug. 24. Roughly one-third of the students in Pinellas and Hillsborough have chosen to take advantage of virtual learning. In Pasco, less than one-quarter of the students plan to learn remotely. Many parents did not meet the deadline to choose between an in-school or virtual learning option. Whether those parents keep their children at home or send them to school, huge numbers of students are poised to return to campuses across the bay area. And they’re returning as infections in Florida surge and as school districts and parents alike continue to make contingencies.

As we will soon discover, even the best plans will need to evolve in real-time, given the contagiousness of the virus and Florida’s emergence as a hot spot. But the basic steps are easy. Masks must be required of everyone on campus at all times, with a few exceptions including for eating, when social distancing is possible and when teaching absolutely demands it. Schools must accommodate those whose special needs make it impossible for them to wear a mask, while also protecting the rest of the campus population. Districts have already devised plans for students to enter and exit school buses to reduce the risk of transmission; they need to enforce these rules and ensure the buses are regularly cleaned and modified as needed. Keeping windows down when possible could increase air circulation.

Reducing campus populations by even one-third gives schools the opportunity to maximize social distancing. They should look to staggering bell times, grouping smaller class sizes and making more use of larger campus facilities — such as cafeterias and gymnasiums — throughout the day. Schools should seriously consider daily temperature checks, and establish procedures for isolating students with complaints or symptoms. They also need a quick and reliable way to communicate with parents when necessary.

All of this takes money, which is why lawmakers in Washington, D.C., need to provide a substantial sum in the latest coronavirus relief packages snaking their way through Congress. And prevention begins at home. Parents must be wary of their child’s social interactions. They need to explain how kids can protect themselves from the virus and impress the importance of healthy hygiene. Children have missed their friends and rituals of school, and it will be easy for them, especially over time, to fall into unsafe behavior. Districts need to keep the public fully apprised of what’s happening — what’s working, what’s not and what the fallback is when problems arise. The entire region has a stake in a safe reopening — and a responsibility to help make it happen.

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

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