Tribune Editorial: Back to school. Carefully.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Ford, president of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education, details the district's restart plans for the 2020-21 school year at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 30, 2020.

Spare a thought for members of the Salt Lake City School Board. And for school boards all across the state and the nation.

Schools in Utah have received precious little in the way of guidance or assistance from the state as they try to work their way through the coronavirus pandemic, and absolutely nothing of substance from the federal government.

Struggling through all the needs and limitations posed by educating so many children — in ways that do not put students, teachers, staff, siblings, parents and grandparents at unacceptable levels of risk — wouldn’t be easy even if the state and federal governments were pulling their weight.

Maintaining the momentum of every child’s educational growth through the normal course of school years, vacations, family moves and other stresses, serving students with so many different levels of educational background, family support, special needs and nutritional and other deficiencies, is a tall order even in normal times.

This is especially true in Utah, where the state’s financial support would have to rise by several levels of magnitude to be considered barely adequate.

At their July 21 meeting, members of the Salt Lake City School Board seemed to be cracking under the pressure.

A dysfunctional group, meeting remotely, seemed to be far too concerned with anything from video games to to insulting teachers to demanding that the meeting end at 6 p.m. for any serious discussion or meaningful decisions to take place.

Last Thursday, there was more focus and a few important things got done.

(A particularly sour note in both meetings was struck by Board Member Michael Nemelka, who insisted repeatedly that teachers favoring continuing online education were “lazy.” That’s not only an insult to teachers, but also to parents who have been pitching in to help and to every other worker, in any sector, who has been working from home these last few months.)

Classes in Salt Lake City will begin — online only — Sept. 8. Various markers, including the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the county and the rate of positive tests, will be monitored as the district looks to move back to more or less traditional, face-to-face education, maybe in a month, maybe later.

There is hope that remote learning will go more smoothly than it did last spring, when everything had to be put together on the fly and too many students were left behind. Or were able to hide.

The decision makes sense in the wake of not only a stubborn rate of cases and hospitalizations in the whole community, but also the understandable concern that the lower-income neighborhoods on the city’s west side where the pandemic is hitting even harder.

Other Utah school districts are proceeding at different rates, including in-person instruction and mixtures of in-school and online classes that are designed to minimize the schools as pandemic vectors.

Clearly, we all want to get our children back into their classrooms as soon as is practical. Education is not just about spelling and math. It is about working and being together, the social skills of getting along, working together, knowing people who aren’t just like you.

Returning to that point will take skill, luck and trial-and-error — even in a situation where error can be deadly.

Masks must be universal. Hand-washing frequent. Hand sanitizer by the gallon. As much physical separation as possible.

And lots and lots of testing. Something that the state will have to provide in much greater quantity and speed than it has so far.

It would have been nice, of course, if Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. (and Republican gubernatorial nominee) Spencer Cox and others had worried less about economic activity and a particularly odd concept of personal freedom and more about squashing the pandemic when we had a chance — and when school was already out.

More mask mandates. More gradual reopening of restaurants and other businesses. More testing and tracing.

But, sigh, that ship has already sunk.