The back to school dilemma

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

Our local school administrators are currently faced with a difficult needle to thread.

As I write this, Henry County Public Schools and Martinsville City Schools have similar plans for reopening in August. While there are differences in the plans, the gist is that both school systems will offer a combination of classroom learning and online education. It’s not going to be easy, but it seems like a smart approach given the limitations they’re operating under. Administrators’ hands are tied to a large extent since Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has warned that schools that choose not to reopen this fall could potentially lose funding.

On the one hand, I recognize that students perform better in the classroom. This is in no way a slight against teachers, who did a frankly remarkable job of converting their classes to an online format with little to no preparation. It’s simply that classroom instruction is hard to beat, especially for young people.

Additionally, there are a whole lot of young people out there who won’t get enough to eat if they don’t get meals at school. Plus, parents need to work, and it’s hard to pull that off if your kids are home all day.

All of this is to say, there are plenty of good reasons why children and their parents will benefit from schools reopening.

At the same time, we have to face reality.

As of now, the coronavirus situation in Martinsville and Henry County is more dire than it’s ever been, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

We do not yet fully understand the effects of coronavirus on young people. While it initially appeared that children experienced mild symptoms compared to older people, there have also been instances of the disease leading to a condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which can be life threatening. While it’s rare, I’m not big on playing the odds when it comes to children’s lives.

Additionally, even if children don’t manifest serious symptoms, they could bring the disease home with them. Many children live with their grandparents, and that could put the health of those grandparents at serious risk.

And of course, teachers are going to be at serious risk of infection. All around the country, many teachers are already deciding that continuing to teach isn’t worth that risk, which means fewer teachers in schools at a time when schools desperately need more teachers.

All of these threats would be minimized if children wear masks to school and practice social distancing. It’s a nice thought. However, while I have no children of my own, I have met children before, and in my experience, making a classroom full of first graders wear masks and stand six feet apart is going to be a challenge on par with bailing out a sinking ship with a thimble.

So what’s the solution, you ask? What’s something that adults can do right now, today, to make sure that our children are safe this fall?

I’m glad you asked, because the solution is actually quite simple:

Wear your dang mask.

As I’ve said before, I know that regular readers of this column are smart, compassionate, strikingly attractive people who wash their hands regularly and would never dream of going to the grocery store without a mask.

However, I’m sure you know some people who aren’t as thoughtful.

Every time I go to the store, which I do as seldom as possible, I am amazed. On the front door of every grocery store I’ve been to, there’s a sign saying that shoppers can’t enter without a mask by order of the Governor.

And then I walk inside the grocery store to find that I’m one of the few actually wearing a mask. I get dirty looks from people. One time, a lady started theatrically coughing near me. She scuttled off when I made eye contact, but that’s the ridiculous mindset we’re dealing with here.

My usual mask is black with a big red “HEAVY METAL” logo on the front. I do not wear it to make a political statement. I wear it to make the statement that I’d rather not accidentally infect my loved ones (or complete strangers!) with a horrible disease, and I also enjoy the fantasy magazine Heavy Metal and its 1981 film adaptation. This, I feel, is a message everyone should be able to get behind.

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams would likely agree (I don’t know his feelings on Heavy Metal, but I’m sure he’d agree with the rest of it). Adams said this week that if a critical mass of U.S. citizens wore masks and followed proper hygiene guidelines, the latest Coronavirus outbreaks would be reversed within a few weeks.

Wearing masks hasn’t been a big deal in many countries around the world. And in those same countries, the curve has been successfully flattened. Unfortunately, you can’t exactly go visit these countries and see the results since Americans have been banned from most of them.

Look, I get it. I’m not crazy about wearing a mask. However, I realize that other people exist, and that those people probably also want to lead rich full lives, so I’m willing to make the extraordinarily minimal sacrifice of wearing a piece of cloth on my face in public.

I also realize that many people make the argument that “the government can’t tell me what to do.” Of course, the government tells us all kinds of things we cannot do, and most of the time we don’t bat an eye. I bet drunk driving is a blast, but I’ve never done it and I somehow don’t feel as though my civil rights have been violated.

We’re at a strange point in this country. We know what we need to do to minimize risk to our fellow citizens, even to our own children, and yet so many people are simply unwilling to put forth the negligible effort.

I remain hopeful that the mask averse will eventually come around on this thing and realize that making the smallest sacrifice to help ensure the safety of others is a worthwhile goal.

I just hope they have this realization before they’re on a ventilator.

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