By editorial board • 

No easy answer in sight on return to school classrooms

We prefer to set our editorial sights on issues in which we hold a clear and compelling view, so we can offer a sharply tailored perspective or prescription. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with today’s topic — how we can best educate our kids this coming school year.

Asked early in World War II how Russia might factor in, Winston Churchill responded, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That definition mirrors our thinking about the back-to-school dilemma now facing every COVID-beset educational institution in America, including the McMinnville School District and Linfield University.

Chemeketa Community College decided early to remain online-only through Thanksgiving, saving the post-Thanksgiving call for later.

The McMinnville School District this week joined most of the state’s larger districts in reaching the same decision. The move in that direction followed the governor’s announcement Wednesday of restrictive reopening guidelines, which most of the districts, including ours, cannot currently meet.

Linfield University is planning to begin face-to-face instruction into the mix. But even with numerous caveats and contingencies, concern is running high among students and faculty.

It’s easy to make a case for resumption of classroom education in some form. Consider:

n Few if any professional educators would argue the online methos fully matches that of the classroom. The classroom experience is inevitably richer and more personal. And none of us want second-best for our children.

n There are hands-ons classes at both the K-12 and college levels that don’t lend themselves to distance learning. For starters, take biology, chemistry and anatomy. And what about auto mechanics, nursing and firefighting?

No one would relish relying an a mechanic who had never touched a tool, a surgeon who had never wielded a scalpel or a firefighter who had never manned a hose.

n Public education provides socialization experiences impossible to replicate in a home setting. And it provides tailored support for students grappling with learning disabilities, physical handicaps and language inadequacies.

n Eliminating classroom time broadens the already gaping divide between the haves and have-nots. The homes of less-advantaged families may lack internet access, computer resources, quiet study places, family teaching time and more.

n Access to adequate childcare services on an affordable basis looms large for many families, particularly one-parent families and two-parent families with both working. They may be faced with a no-win choice between their employment and their children’s education.

n Educational institutions feature high-tech, cutting-edge equipment simply not available in a home setting. Experience with such equipment on the high school and college levels is a key component in training tomorrow’s competitive workforce.

n Finally, school personnel do a good job of identifying and addressing student social, mental and physical needs. The child experiencing abuse, lacking proper clothing, unfed or suffering from depression is much more likely to be identified in a classroom setting.

But weighing against all that is the threat of spreading a highly infectious disease — one with the ability to cripple and kill, particularly among those facing age and health disadvantages. Consider:

n COVID-19 has proven particularly contagious and lethal in other institutional settings, notably prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. That makes the thought of sharing dorms, classrooms, locker rooms and other tight quarters daunting.

n While the disease seems more prone to infecting those at the upper end of the age spectrum, it has been known to strike in the womb and early childhood, sometimes to tragic effect. And people of all ages can serve as unwitting carriers.

n Outbreaks fueled by weddings, funerals, parties, religious services and crowded worksites amply prove the danger of close contact with others — a staple of the traditional school setting.

Athletic competition can also trigger outbreaks, even at the youth level. Look at all the Newberg cases stemming from a baseball team’s participation in an out-of-town tournament.

n And what about the teachers? Do we have any right to demand they multiply their personal exposure exponentially? Are we prepared to replace them if they refuse, or, worse, fall victim to the scourge midway through?

n Finally, how do we respond when either a teacher or student comes down with a case of the sniffles? That’s inevitable, and will prove highly disruptive.

When you enter a classroom, you open yourself to the collective exposures of everyone else in that room. And it goes without saying that some will not be taking prudent precautions.

Our advice to local educational institutions is limited to this:

Take into account both common and unique elements of your circumstances. Work collaboratively with parents, teachers and students, taking into account the full range of views. Perhaps most of all, be prepared to shift course as you amass experience with this crucial component of our collective COVID response.


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