What if back to school isn’t back at school?

As he stood next to a jumbo jet full of a half million face masks last week, Gov. Gary Herbert was thumbs up on reopening schools for the first time since COVID-19 shut them down in March.

But it’s more optimism than realism when the state is adding 500 cases a day. As University of Utah epidemiologist Andrew Pavia said, “If we can’t get the numbers down, we can’t reopen schools.”

In a state that has the most schoolchildren and funds them the least, it’s going to take nothing short of a revolution to educate them in pandemic times. Even if the schools can find enough plastic shielding and PPE to open buildings, they will have to operate below capacity. Supplementing with more online instruction is as inevitable as it is challenging.

Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you that the last two months of spring were largely a lost cause. Given barely a weekend to figure out distance learning, schools sputtered to even keep children engaged, let alone learning. A large chunk never logged in.

Among the pitfalls:

• Access. In our wired state, most households are already broadband equipped. But for the rest, just getting a machine and an internet provider is an impossible hurdle. Whether it’s lending machines and/or subsidizing home internet, those children can’t be left behind.

• Concentration. Adults have been living this for months. Try simulating the quiet of a well controlled classroom in a crowded apartment. Educators have to retool their curricula to break through the distractions.

• Social development. The early grades in particular are a petri dish for growing healthy attitudes and interactions. What does that look like in a Zoom world?

Utah has the intellectual and technical resources to lead out on distance learning for public schoolchildren. In addition to respected education departments at state universities and Brigham Young University, we’re also home to some of distance learning’s industry giants.

Tech unicorn Pluralsight is one of the world’s largest providers of online education. And Instructure already has its Canvas classroom management software in many Utah schools. Expertise, fortified with well placed tax dollars, is the best way forward.

There are more than 600,000 schoolchildren in Utah, so the half million masks on that plane will be gone the first day. We need a real plan for giving Utah children the knowledge they will so desperately need in this crucial time.