Get Back (to where you once belonged)


I learned a long time ago that the term “back-to-school” means a lot of different things to different people. In the school supply business, it depended upon which side of the aisle you sat.

For suppliers, back-to-school meant the season when dealers and retailers stocked up on inventory, usually late spring to early summer. For dealers it was late summer to early fall, when teachers scrambled to prepare for the new year.

To the general public, and the general economy, back-to-school meant parents shopping for apparel, shoes, electronics and stationery items, mostly around Labor Day. Some estimates put average spending per family at $700.

Those definitions may still apply in the future, and let’s hope that they do, but back-to-school also means something entirely different in 2020. Like everything else, schools were hurriedly slammed shut about five months ago, an event so unexpected and abrupt that it’s still hard to believe that it actually happened.

Many things have reopened since then, and others we have learned to do without for the time being, but schools do not fall into those categories. They remain closed, and most of us agree that they must reopen.

As far as I can discern, there are two major reasons behind that consensus. One is that a majority of the kids in this country are falling behind, and that it won’t be long before the damage is irreparable. Distance learning works well for certain students with certain teachers, but too many kids lack adequate internet service, or compatible hardware. Too many lack parents who are willing or able to participate in the process. America can’t afford an undereducated generation.

The other reason is that the economy cannot fully open until children are back in school. To a huge extent, parents are only able to go to work because their kids are in class. That’s in addition to the fact that schools employ, directly or indirectly, millions of people.

So we know why schools must reopen, and we have a pretty good idea of when, but the problem is how. Putting a quarter of the population into groups of 30, and having them spend seven hours a day together, indoors, five days a week, during a pandemic, doesn’t sound like a well-thought-out plan.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it might not be as bad as it sounds. Although school-age children make up 24 percent of the population, they only account for 2 percent of COVID-19 infections. More remarkably, only one child in a million has required hospitalization for the coronavirus, compared to about 75 people per million in the 50-to-64 age group.

If we’ve learned anything about the virus it’s not to take anything about it for granted, but so far the indicators regarding children are almost all encouraging. Even in cities that were hit particularly hard with the contagion, the infection rate among children remained low, and there haven’t been any hot spots tied directly to a school.

Schools have been open for months in a number of countries, including Germany, Austria, Norway, Denmark and New Zealand, as well as some parts of China and the United States. So far, so good.

That’s not to say that precautions shouldn’t be taken. The places I’ve mentioned have taken a number of them, and we are likely to see a variety of strategies applied this fall in this country.

First off, everybody’s going to get a temperature check every morning. In some countries parents are even conducting the scans at home and plugging them into a database, but I’m guessing Americans will leave it up to the schools, as they do with everything else.

Second, everyone puts on a mask when they leave the house. It seems ridiculous that we’re still arguing about this. It’s an airborne virus, not a political divining rod.

Surprisingly, we had the same debate over a century ago during the 1918 flu pandemic, during which many cities mandated masks and some people resisted. The Red Cross ran a public service announcement stating that “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.”

The evidence is clear, by the way, that areas that required masks fared better than those that did not. Enough said.

Then the kids have to get to school, but not on a crowded bus. There either have to be more bus runs, which might tie in with staggered starting times, or not all students go to school every day, or we use alternative transportation, or some combination of the three.

When they arrive at school they will confront the core problem, too many people in a confined space. The building they left last March will be transformed into something airier, with fewer desks, open windows, and a lot more signage about where to walk, what to avoid doing and how to disinfect oneself.

In some cases, there may even be outdoor classes, which would be much safer in regard to the virus and could also solve the space problem caused by spreading out desks. In my neck of the woods, however, sitting outside in January would be a lot more lethal than the coronavirus.

What’s more likely is that schools will try to use the experience that they acquired with distance learning last spring in order to create some sort of hybrid model going forward. Depending upon a student’s age, expertise and other factors, he or she might work from home on certain days of the week, which could go a long way toward opening up the necessary space.

There will also be teachers who should stay home, due to age or other risk factors. It would be convenient if they could be used to work with the distance learners, but the logistics of all that will be challenging.

Other challenges will abound, including the continuous cleaning of the buildings. As someone who spent summer vacations working as a school janitor, I can tell you that there is no way the existing staff can clean all the surfaces in a school even once a day, let alone multiple times a day. Fortunately, recent research has indicated that people rarely contract the virus from surfaces, but it is theoretically possible, and spraying Lysol on everything is somehow comforting.

We’ll also need to establish protocols for dealing with children or adults who do contract the virus, in terms of isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, etc. At what point do we send everybody home?

Some public health authorities have suggested that each student should be assigned to a “bubble,” a small group of students who stay together through class changes, lunch, recess and so on. It’s similar to the NBA plan, but designed for much shorter people.

There will be a lot more ideas from a lot more sources. For instance, my own state of New York has 700 school districts, each of which has been tasked to develop its own reopening plan.

This is kind of like being at the top of a very steep hill, and starting to roll down. We’re going to get to the bottom of it one way or another.


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