NC should listen to teachers and resist the rush to reopen schools

NC should listen to teachers and resist the rush to reopen schools

Image: Adobe Stock

It’s been seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down in North Carolina, but it feels like seven years. In just over 200 days, we’ve seen at least a quarter-million of our neighbors contract the coronavirus and 4,000 die. Nationally, more than 8 million people have become infected and 220,000 have perished.

And, of course, these tragic statistics are far from the only gloomy news. The pandemic has damaged the economy – particularly for women and people of color. Rates of unemployment, business closures, hunger and homelessness have all soared along with a host of less-well-tabulated social ills – including widespread stress, depression and social unrest.

Meanwhile, our rudderless national government tacks wildly in one direction and then the other. At one moment, we are promised a universal vaccine in record time and the next, the talk shifts to a quixotic pursuit of “herd immunity.”

At such a bleak moment, there is an obvious and understandable temptation to think with one’s heart and say, in effect, “to hell with it – anything is better than this.”

One can sense this instinct rising in many state and local officials as they have gauged the frustration and despair that plagues many of their constituents. When right-wing extremists are threatening to murder governors who have listened to science and put public health first, it’s not surprising that some officials are moving to reopen things faster than they might have.

This phenomenon is playing out right now across North Carolina as K-12 and college leaders look desperately for ways to justify a full reopening of schools, even as a new and deadly wave of virus infections threatens to spike.

In Forsyth County, for example, the school board recently adopted a plan that would allow for some elementary students to return to school for in-person learning as early as Nov. 2. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, the initial decision specified that the final determinations on whether to proceed would be based upon the rate of positive COVID-19 tests in the county staying below 5%. Soon thereafter, however, uncertainties in that standard prompted the board to shift gears and look to other CDC guidelines – both of which remain rather fuzzily spelled out.

Meanwhile, UNC Chapel Hill has hatched a plan to reopen the campus in mid-January for a delayed, spring “breakless,” second semester that will, it is hoped, fare better than the disastrous effort attempted in August.

Sadly, the problem with all of these jury-rigged schemes is that try as their architects might to make them safe and sane, they still fly in the face of common sense.

This is because the pandemic isn’t getting better right now. Responsible restrictions set by the Cooper administration over the last several months have clearly left our state much better off than most of the rest of the American South. But the hard truth remains that the virus is vastly more widespread now than it was in March when virtually all of the state’s residents were directed to “shelter in place.”

And this is why so many school and university employees are so concerned right now about the push to reopen and, in more than few instances, even considering leaving their professions: They’ve seen what’s happened in some places and understandably fear for their lives and those of their students and loved ones. It’s also why the latest polling shows that a large majority of the state’s population actually favors a cautious approach.

Does this mean that all hope is lost or that we’ll never get back to “normal”? Of course not.

Seven months’ worth of experience has taught us a tremendous amount – both individually and communally. Most North Carolinians are much better-informed about the virus today and much better-practiced at the tactics needed to control it than they were in March. We clearly have the ability to safely carry on a much greater level of societal activity than we could have in the spring.

Unfortunately, despite all our progress, one big lesson that has yet to be as widely learned as it should be at this point is the importance of patience and a commitment to shared sacrifice.

While it may feel like seven years since the pandemic slammed our state, the hard truth is that the sacrifices made by most Americans over the last few months (especially the well-off) pale in comparison to the sacrifices made by previous generations during wars, depressions and pandemics.

The bottom line: Our state and nation possess the necessary know-how and resources that would allow us to: a) heed the concerns of teachers and others whose lives would be placed at-risk by reopening schools too soon, b) greatly reduce human suffering, c) discern ways to help our children overcome the losses they are enduring, and d) stand up to those who would terrorize elected leaders.

May we have the courage to return to such a path.