The impact of COVID-19 on Tampa Bay area schools was lighter than many expected, and now the two warring sides of the school reopening debate have seized a fresh opportunity to point fingers — did schools overreact, or did these precautionary steps help prevent the spread of the coronavirus? This debate misses the point. And it’s turning what should be a cause for celebration into another cultural war that neither side will win.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol reported recently, COVID-19 levels in Tampa Bay area schools were considerable but not catastrophic. The region has more than 400,000 public and charter school students, and its four school districts employ more than 50,000 adults. And among that population of nearly a half-million people, the Times had counted under 18,000 cases in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties by the end of May. That works out to one infected person for every 27 people over the 10-month school year.
Some who opposed closing schools and campus masking requirements said the low numbers point to hysteria, while supporters said the measures could have gone even further to keep school populations safer. We prefer to focus on the real lessons of the COVID experience. And a little history here helps.
The schools — like every other institution in America — scrambled in the face of the pandemic. Governments, employers and workers across every industry had the same concerns and unanswered questions in the spring and summer of 2020. How infectious was the virus? What was the danger of large gatherings? How effectively would public health precautions — from masking, social distancing and cleaning protocols — forestall the outbreak to give the health care system and pharmaceutical industry time to turn the corner? And more to the point with schools, how was the coronavirus endangering children?
The last year has been nothing but an evolving experiment, and there can be no doubt that masks, distancing and other safety precautions spared a worse contagion of the highly transmittable virus. And this Monday-morning quarterbacking also ignores a larger reality — that schools were doing everything they could to both provide on-campus instruction for those who wanted it while also offering remote learning for those who felt safer at home.
Florida’s decision to keep in-person learning and virtual classrooms an option was designed to serve the broadest interests of school families as possible. Teachers and staff who kept the traditional schools open sacrificed greatly, and put themselves at uncertain risk, to meet the demands of families worried about losing the classroom experience. Instructors also pulled double duty with students learning remotely, many in distracting settings and with unreliable technology. And taxpayers provided billions of dollars to keep the nation’s classrooms clean and safe. This was a herculean effort into the viral unknown. The academic and social fallout of the last year is only now being measured.
If anything, the COVID numbers in schools justify Florida’s measured approach. They also serve as a reminder that finding common ground is important. Tampa Bay area school systems should be applauded for their service in the pandemic. Keeping a lid on the outbreak didn’t happen by accident, and the schools should be recognized for helping keep society open while also protecting the health of their communities. Any other reading is revisionist history.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.