EDITORIAL: It’s not a big thing

IN TWO WEEKS, more or less, kids in Columbia County will return to school. Kind of. Each of the six public school districts in the county has its own version of the best way to teach the most kids with the least risk to the health of students and teachers. It is an awesome responsibility in the best of times. Now it looms like a nearly impossible task.

There isn’t a single right way to do this as far as we know. Some parents will opt to have their children receive a public education exclusively online. Other families don’t have that choice. Some parents can’t afford to stay at home with their kids, others lack the technology—internet service, computers, etc.—that kids need for schoolwork.

We regularly report on the two largest school districts in the county, the Ichabod Crane Central School District and the Hudson City School District. Over the last two months administrators, teachers, staff and parents in both districts have crafted complex but practical plans to keep teachers in front of students. It sounds so simple. The classroom was the setting for the education previous generations received. But now the classroom itself is a potential threat.

There always have been mean teachers and class bullies: Toughen up, kid. This harassment will make you stronger. That has now given way to a more humane approach. Problem is, nothing we know about Covid-19 suggests that it’s humane. Ichabod Crane students from kindergartners to 5th graders—those who don’t stay home—will quickly be taught skills aimed at preventing behavior that invites the virus into their classroom.

Kids are smart. They know why it’s important to maintain social distancing. They will know what it means to stand 6 feet apart. They understand that when they sneeze or cough they can pass the virus to others. They know that the sneezes and coughs of friends and strangers can pass the illness to them. They know that if everybody would social distance and wear a mask the virus would not have a place to live.

Science and data show us that these things are true. It’s a simple story that addresses a complex problem.

We are embarking as a nation on a major social experiment. We are asking whether there is a way to use the buildings we now call schools and the techniques we call education in the age of Coronaviruses? The subjects of this experiment are our children. The results will likely tell us plenty about our society, our country and our future.

Kids are perceptive. They notice when goals and behavior don’t match. They will ask why so many grownups don’t wear masks. Maybe in the Village of Chatham some kids will notice the signs on Main Street that say: “Face Masks Must be worn in this area.”

What would you tell a child who asks:

“Does he want me to get Covid-19, Mommy?”

“Dad, doesn’t she know?”

As the subjects of our experiment, they have a right to an answer.

If you don’t wear a mask or don’t wear one often, how do you explain this behavior to a child? Is it vanity? Is your mask too uncomfortable to bear? Does it make you feel less free, less strong or less important? Whatever reasons, how should we weigh the right to masklessness against the lives of children?

It’s not that anyone intentionally infects someone else. The risk is that by failing to wear a mask you send a message to children that not wearing a mask is acceptable behavior during a pandemic. You may not believe that masks protect people, but that does not give you the right to make reopening school any more risky that it already is.

The schools have done a remarkable job of preparing for the unknown. But there will be mistakes. Be prepared for systems to malfunction. Expect some confusion at least until the schedules and technology finally mesh. In this experiment everyone will have to improvise.

Remind people that the small things matter too. Wearing a mask is a small thing to do to protect our kids. You can do it for the children.

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