Minnesota must safely open its schools. That is a complete sentence and thought, “safely open.”

It is a wonder something so complete and logical should generate so much controversy, but, both words are subject to interpretation by family, teacher, school and community and the words have unfortunately been given the color of politics.

In a recent KARE 11 television interview world renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, director for the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, offered a critical observation: “Anybody who has all the answers in what to do with schools doesn't have answers at all.”

Dr. Osterholm went on to say: “I think 20 to 40 years from now, when our great-grandkids are reading about the pandemic of 2020, how we handled our schools, how we handled the kids, how they melded into our community response, will be one of the defining moments of this pandemic.”

We have been made well-aware of the importance of physical distancing and face coverings for fighting the transmittal of COVID-19. We are also aware that large crowds compromise the issue of distance, hence the empty stadiums, postponed sports seasons, canceled state fairs, concerts and art shows. Even our ability to visit the sick or hold memorials for our families and friends have been postponed or eliminated.

But now the opening of schools is upon us and we will see the largest enclosed crowds of this pandemic as students enter classrooms.

Gov. Tim Walz has established guidelines with flexibility for opening schools based on recommendations from top health, science and education experts in the state. Planning and implementation are left to each school board and community.

The best path toward pre-pandemic operations of schools must be with the greatest of precautions and with a commitment to a sustained opening and not a quick opening. Safety must come first, all else second. This includes safe distance, safe face covering, safe disinfecting, safe gathering and dismissal, safe busing, safe recreation and safe sport. Safe cannot be casual, nor comfortable or political. If it is not safe don’t do it.

The path toward a safe and sustained opening will vary from district to district if not school to school. Some models, like distance learning, come with an acknowledged disadvantage to those without computer and internet access. We have not yet provided for all those students. Some models work better with older students and less well with pre-k and early elementary. Those shortcomings can and should be addressed.

Minnesota currently has some stability to our COVID-19 profile. This provides a fragile advantage that can easily be reversed by a cavalier attitude toward data, safety and self-sacrifice. Full operation of schools and having the virus under control are key elements to full operation of our economy and both are dependent on individual commitment to the safety of self and others.

School boards and schools need to maintain open communications with parents and communities; “open” as in everyone can see and hear what is going into each policy decision; open as with listening ports to record parent and student comments; open, as with regular (daily if possible) on health-related events of the day, even when no news is good news.

Parents need to be supportive of the provisions for safety and act on those provisions. Parental attitude will directly affect student behavior. Parents need to be prepared for sudden setbacks and changes if an outbreak occurs.

Perfect it is not. Some families living across the street from others but in a different county have different models for opening schools. Within the same family the opening can differ by age and grade level. Sports and extracurricular activities are compromised and that comes with disappointment. Family work schedules are altered and income is lost. Teachers, like health and care providers and providers of support for the elderly, may be facing additional risk and join the “heroes” of the pandemic. We need and must appreciate our teachers.

No, not perfect, but if done right it does get Minnesota moving toward a safe and sustained education for our children.

— An editorial from the Adams Publishing/ECM Editorial Board. Reactions are welcome. Send to: editorial.board@apgecm.com

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