Tribune Editorial: COVID will be taking us to school

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christy Smith who has been a crossing guard for 33-years at Parkside Elementary in Murray, helps students and their parents cross Vine Street safely in Murray for the first day of school on Monday, August, 17, 2020. Murray is the first school district in the state to open.

It’s that dream many of us have had. You are in school — maybe college, maybe high school. It is near the end of the semester. Suddenly, you realize there is one class you signed up for that you never attended, never did the reading, never did any of the assignments. It’s too late to drop the class. The final is tomorrow.

The story doesn’t really come to any kind of resolution. You just wake up with a feeling of existential dread until you realize it was all just a dream. A dream people have decades after graduating.

Now, it is not a dream. But, instead of the end of the school year, it is the beginning. And we are waking up with a sense of foreboding that won’t be shaken off with a shower and a cup of coffee.

Utah, along with much of the rest of the United States, is on the verge of reopening its schools — public schools and colleges — after having spent the past several months not doing the reading or the assignments. Chances that it will all end in disaster — or, at least, the need to close all the schools again — are high.

It did not have to be this way.

When the schools ended in-person classes last spring, that wasn’t just an extra vacation. It was a chance for those who run those schools, people who were in turn dependent on those who run our state and federal governments, to assess the situation and figure out what to do about it.

Maybe it isn’t fair to expect those government officials to have known then what we know now. But what we know now is pretty clear. Until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, the most effective steps we can take to slow or even effectively halt its spread are decidedly low-tech.

We must wear masks. We must avoid crowds. We must put as much physical distance between people as we can. The pleasing decline in the number of new cases reported daily in Utah, particularly in hard-hit Salt Lake County, is convincing evidence these practices work.

Yet there are too many of us who are still refusing to go to class. People object to wearing masks, taking pride in their refusal to do a stunningly simple thing that serves to protect other people, apparently believing only chumps care about others.

People, many of them in positions of influence and power, are more concerned with starting the economy than stopping the pandemic, willfully oblivious to the fact that only stopping the pandemic will make it possible to restart the economy.

When Gov. Gary Herbert, as he has done twice now, declares a state of coronavirus emergency, it is not he who is interfering with our ability to go about our lives as we always have. It is the coronavirus doing that. Herbert, like the weatherman issuing a tornado warning, didn’t create the storm, he is only telling us it is here and we should protect ourselves.

When Herbert said the other day that people who oppose having their children wear masks in school are being “irrational,” he was using what is, for him, pretty strong language. But he is correct. They are.

At the same time, it has become apparent that the realization of the need for masks and other protective equipment has not resulted in Utah schools actually having on hand what they need. And many teachers and parents are understandably choosing not to go back to work or to send their children to class.

And because we have now been through months of widespread irrationality, we are facing a fall without college football, without our cherished rituals of returning to school, or starting school for the first time, in a welcoming environment.

Even with all this time to prepare, schools are unsure about how, or whether, to proceed. They are cobbling together hybrids of in-person and remote learning that may be effective enough in teaching grammar and quadratic equations but cannot help but lack the security and humanity of traditional schooling.

And realizing students should wear masks and engage in some distancing doesn’t mean battalions of fidgety first graders and defiant high schoolers will reliably do so.

We are waking up in the middle of the story, realizing had we taken the proper measures months ago, we wouldn’t be in this fix now. All we can do is do now what we should have done then.