EDITORIAL: Learning times

Flexibility is a priority in planning school year

People everywhere have shown admirable resilience dealing with the worldwide viral pandemic. They’ll need to show even more as we approach the upcoming school year.

Most students were on spring break when COVID-19 began to take hold; they haven’t been back to campus since the March holiday. Surely few people expected that four months later we’d still be in the grips of the pandemic and plans for the fall term would be uncertain. In fact, some might say things are worse than ever right now.

After initial improvement, we’re dealing with a resurgence in the number of infections, including severe and even fatal cases. State officials who had begun a slow and cautious reopening of the economy have had to reimpose mandates to wear facial coverings and restrict public interactions. Rio Grande Valley hospitals report that they are over capacity with people who have COVID-19 and other health issues.

Educators and the families they serve generally did a spectacular job dealing with their inability to hold on-campus classes. They quickly found ways to utilize social media outlets and adjust teaching methods to enable most students to continue learning at home. As with any specific mode of instruction, of course, some students thrived, some did not. But overall, the adjustments can be considered a success. They were, however, expected to be temporary.

With the traditional start of the fall school term about six weeks away, educators now must plan for a semester that might or might not start on time. Some school districts have talked about starting the term earlier than normal in order to start teaching as soon as possible, and allow for more days off during the semester if needed. Others wonder if it might be more prudent to start later, hoping the extra time will allow the pandemic, and the risk of exposing students to the virus, to fade.

Adding to the uncertainty is an understandable fear among the public. As many as 40% percent of parents in some districts have said they don’t want to send their children to school in the fall. Many teachers have expressed concerns about their own health.

That leaves school officials with tough choices. Will they offer at least some online classes to accommodate families who still fear allowing their children to interact closely with others, or will they offer only oncampus classes, and let families assume the risk or seek other options?

Either way, schools could face pressure to add staff, whether it’s to offer both online and classroom instruction or to reduce class sizes in order to keep students at safe distances as much as possible. They might have trouble funding such moves with expected revenue shortfalls brought on by economic constrictions.

Time is running short, and the uncertainties require school officials to decide whether to commit to a strategy that could be affected by further developments, or develop contingency plans that enable them to change course quickly if necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a learning experience for everyone, especially educators, families and others who strive to keep our children on track to attain the education and skills they will need to address whatever challenges they will face in the future. May they continue to meet those challenges with the success they have shown thus far.