Don Gale: Educating society’s young folks is never without risk

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kirk Nielsen joined other teachers and parents holding signs calling for a safe plan on reopening schools prior to a Jordan School District board meeting in Riverton on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

School or no school? That’s the question facing all of us – children, parents, teachers, grandparents and everyone else. As with most important issues, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer.

It’s a question of balancing two major risks. There is, of course, risk in sending children and teachers back into what will inevitably be crowded classrooms. That’s especially true in Utah, where lawmakers have underfunded schools for more than a quarter century. Utah’s chronic overcrowding in schools increases the risk that students, teachers, and parents could be infected by the COVID-19 virus.

But there is also risk in not sending students back to school, especially younger students. Those risks include raising under-educated youngsters who will eventually become voters and leaders, developing young citizens lacking in social skills, creating overly stressed parents with inevitable family breakdowns and probably an increase in child abuse. All of those things — and more — have already proven to be consequences of this spring’s shortened school year.

The question is not whether or not risk will occur, but which of the two choices will result in risks most damaging to children, to their parents, to society as a whole, to the long-term economy, and to the nation.

Surely, opening schools is more important and less dangerous than opening bars, gyms, tattoo parlors and other marginally important enterprises. And surely putting children in classrooms is infinitely more important than putting football teams on fields where no one can watch.

Opening schools is considerably less dangerous than opening business venues because young people — especially pre-high school youngsters — are less likely than adults to “catch” the virus, to suffer serious effects, and to pass it on to others. Those are scientific truths.

If we were talking about a school shutdown that would last only three or four months, the decision would be relatively easy. But we’re probably looking at a school shutdown for the entire school year — at least. That changes the risk balance. Under that scenario, the open schools option is the most rational choice.

We now know much more about COVID-19 than we knew in March. We know how to reduce the spread of the malady by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. It may be unrealistic to expect social distancing from children, especially young children. But it is not unreasonable to expect school children of all ages to wear masks.

Good teachers know how to use class leaders as positive role models. Some students may refuse to wear masks because misguided parents set deplorable examples, but those students may also be the ones most likely to stay home. Both classroom learning and distance learning must be available so teachers and students can have the option of choosing one or the other. (It will provide a great opportunity to measure the relative success or failure of two approaches.)

Additional safety measures must be applied to classrooms, hallways, playgrounds and travel routes to and from school. Congress and state legislatures must provide additional funding to help schools absorb additional safety costs, including potential health care costs for teachers.

It would be ideal to have school nurses at every school, but that is unlikely — not because we can’t afford it but because we probably cannot find enough trained nurses.

School or no school? Either choice is not without risk. But individuals who succeed and societies that succeed are those willing to take a few risks along the way.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, a longtime Utah journalist, has been writing about social issues for sixty years. He believes getting young people back to school may be the most important issue he has covered.