Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Aug. 17, 2022

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In Our View: Schools must strive to keep in-person learning

The Columbian

A surge in coronavirus infections is playing havoc with in-person education. Vancouver Public Schools has implemented rotating remote learning because of a shortage of bus drivers, and districts throughout the region are facing challenges to keep their doors open.

We hope that local and state officials will do everything possible to maintain in-person instruction. But we recognize that wishful thinking is not an antidote for COVID-19 – nor is protesting outside of schools or yelling at school board members.

As Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said last week: “We’ve got a challenging three or four weeks coming. It is possible that your school or school district is going to have to make a decision for a short period of time just to make sure that folks can safely deal with an infection and return to school appropriately.”

The challenge is presented by the omicron variant of the virus, which is proving to be easily transmitted. Infection rates have skyrocketed throughout the country, with teenagers and children being highly susceptible.

The good news is that symptoms typically are not as severe as with the alpha and delta variants, particularly among people who have been vaccinated; symptoms often are similar to a nasty cold, but a highly contagious one. While infection rates have increased, hospitalization rates and fatalities have decreased with the new variant.

All of that leads to some uncertainty for school officials. Reykdal stresses that schools are committed to keeping students and staff COVID-free.

“Our health and safety measures through the duration of this have gotten better, they’ve allowed for our schools to, quite frankly, be the safest places for kids,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and we’ve certainly had outbreaks in schools, but we’re very, very thankful for the educators across every level in our state who have put their heart and soul into keeping schools open this year.”

Whether schools can remain open, however, is a pressing question. On Monday, Vancouver officials announced that McLoughlin Middle School and Fort Vancouver High School would use remote learning the remainder of the week; other schools will rotate in following weeks. “We do not have enough bus drivers to transport all of our students in our current format, so it is necessary to implement a temporary schedule,” district officials said.

Being in a classroom has academic, social and emotional benefits for students, but remote learning is a viable option. If many teachers and staff members are out sick, if there are not enough adults to fill the classrooms or transport students, what is the alternative?

Teachers and staff, like students, should isolate if displaying COVID symptoms; going to school and potentially infecting others will only make a bad situation worse. But that also leaves local districts struggling to find enough substitutes.

Reykdal stressed that, unlike in 2020, decisions to close schools or return to remote learning will be up to individual districts rather than a statewide mandate. That reflects the knowledge that has been gleaned since COVID arrived 22 months ago. But there still is room for disagreement over the best approach for a district and its students. It is essential for district officials to be transparent with the public and spell out the facts that support their decisions.

Ideally, schools will be able to remain open for in-person learning. But when a spike in infections requires a temporary return to remote learning, we will make the best of a difficult situation.

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