Back-to-school vision tricky amid blurry landscape

Parents of school-age children have been riding the “What will fall look like?” bus for months now. Most likely boarded hopeful they’d be let off at the “Back in class with safety measures” stop.

Crossing from spring into summer, the combination remote/in-person model appeared on the horizon as an alternative destination as COVID-19’s persistence compelled some rerouting.

In recent weeks, a number of Hinsdale’s surrounding school districts have announced plans to — at the risk of straining the metaphor a bit more — essentially make a U-turn and head back to the full-time remote learning that ended the 2019-20 school year.

District 86 is, as we report on Page 3, is moving ahead with a hybrid back-to-school plan. Not surprisingly, some are less in the community are less than enamored with it. District 181 has indicated an intention to conduct in-person instruction with an option for parallel remote learning. The board at a special meeting tonight will make a final decision, which will presumably satisfy some and frustrate others.

Each of us uses our own lens through which to judge the appropriateness of these decisions. Should the academic and socialization benefits of in-person learning trump the safety concerns associated with it? Or is a vaccine needed before we even consider returning kids to the classroom?

In a recent interview, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield spoke of “many negative public health consequences” as a result of school closures.

“We are a strong advocate to work through with the school districts ... how can they operationalize (our guidance) in their school to get their students back to face-to-face learning,” he said.

That, of course, includes masks, social distancing, regular and thorough cleanings, and, should positive cases emerge, identifying and quarantining effectively.

School officials have dedicated considerable time developing plans they believe are best for their respective school communities. Absent a statewide directive, our elected board members, with staff guidance, need to navigate both potential educational and health ramifications of a plan.

And, as Anita Cicero of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told a Bloomberg interview recently, students and school personnel are only part of the equation.

“Also we should think about the families of the students and the families of the teachers, because we don’t yet know how exposed they may be to contracting the virus if it’s brought home from school,” Cicero said.

And even youth are not universally low-risk.

“We also know that those (students) with underlying health conditions, just like adults, are more likely to have serious outcomes,” she said, noting children with developmental disabilities often have comorbid conditions that put them at higher risk.

Solutions that seem easy — like putting up a partition to divide the lunchroom into multiple spaces — are actually very complicated as they must meet Illinois Department of Public Health requirements and cannot block access to an emergency exit.

“It cannot be a learned behavior on how to exit the building,” said Hinsdale Central Principal Bill Walsh.

Just as we trust educators to meet the needs of all students as best they can, from those with individual education plans to those enrolled in the district’s most rigorous courses, we should trust them now in these unprecedented times. That includes trust that plans will be modified if unfolding circumstances demand it.

Remember, we’re in this together.