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Should we, or shouldn’t we re-open our K-12 schools in the fall? If you tilt toward the affirmative, you must follow up with the question of “how.” How do we do this? What will it look like? If you lean toward the negative reaction, the follow-up question has to be “at what cost?” If not, then what?

Is it possible to find a practical middle-ground solution?

The pandemic has afforded us an uneasy path forward. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. We have painted ourselves into the proverbial corner. Absent any careful, proactive, planning we find ourselves in the position that suggests that the only way to navigate one’s way out of the dilemma we have created will result in damage. There’s no easy, no guaranteed, no thoughtful way to move beyond this situation unscathed.

I get that re-opening schools is a key component to the overall scheme of re-opening our economy. For parents to work their shifts, they must have reliable plans for the care and supervision of their children. There are also urgent considerations of the need to provide necessary non-instructional services for many children. Sadly, the students that find themselves in postal zip codes that represent generational poverty and chronic unemployment, where education is often an underfunded aspiration, will face the greatest negative impacts, regardless of the decisions of policy makers.

Children need to be in school. The best place to learn is among a cohort of peers, guided by a well-trained, competent and caring professional. I can’t argue with the American Academy of Pediatrics in their assertion that it is in the best developmental interests of children to return to school. The benefits are profound. They stress the fundamental role of schools in providing academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health therapy.

Who can argue that? Not me.

Not having schools open for in-person instruction will hurt all kids. Regardless of the decision, re-open or not, our most vulnerable kids stand to be the most disadvantaged.

What about teachers? Teachers need to teach. They love their craft. I have had the privilege of knowing, honoring and supporting hundreds of teachers during the course of my public education career. Consequently, I know, for sure, that they mourn the loss of the daily interactions with their students; interactions that forge the powerful relationships that define our system of public education when it is executed correctly. They engage in the profession to make a difference, a profound and lifelong difference, in the present and future lives of their students. Teachers are called to their work. They are heroes.

So, here we are. Kids need to learn in the presence of caring professionals and the professionals need to authentically engage with the kids in front of them. Here’s the rub.

Both learners and teachers deserve to be safe.

I have become frustrated in recent days that the question of whether, and how, and when to re-open our schools has become a political baton. The urgency to act has become a product of reelection strategy and economic expediency. Don’t be fooled into believing anything else. The argument is void of any consideration about what is best for kids and the adults hired to mentor them. Aside from the opinions of medical and mental health professionals, we don’t openly discuss the relative and practical safety of all concerned.

To all of my public education policy makers and to all of the building administrators and teacher leaders who follow my weekly rants, I must remind us all of a basic, undeniable fact.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis. That must be our paramount concern. Yes, we are also faced with a public education crisis: a pandemic of its own that requires our sincere and immediate attention, and one that I have, and continue to advocate through the efforts of this weekly blog and my advocacy efforts through The Education Kids Deserve. But, let’s consider first things first. To effectively reimagine, to re-define and re-structure our system of American public education requires that we have healthy participants. Our first obligation today, and in the days of our immediate future, must be the consideration of the overall safety of kids and school staff in any decisions we make. The President of The United States may make demands and even suggest economic sanctions regarding the topic of re-opening of our schools. But, his political agenda must pale in comparison to the overall, and overwhelming, concern of safety for everyone who walks through the schoolhouse doors.

As we consider this unenviable question regarding if, when and how to re-open schools, we should consider, and bow to, the fundamental oath of our medical practitioners: “First, do no harm.”

For educators the pledge is even more challenging. We know that harm will occur. Our question is how to mitigate it.

We must be prudent.

“Prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions; it means being committed to making joint decisions after pondering responsibly (of) the road to be taken.” Pope Benedict XVI.

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