“Our first priority is the health and safety of our clients, staff and the general public….”

Bob Jones column photo

Bob Jones

How many times have you read that line at the beginning of a message from a company or an agency of some kind? What follows often contradicts that promising opening line.

I’m pleased to report that the Sonoma County Office of Education, which guides and supports the school districts in western Sonoma County, does not begin its Coronavirus page that way. It gets right to it in both English and Español with about 50 pages of information, considerations, options and ideas for managing the schools in the midst of a pandemic.

What these 50 pages show is that a lot of care has been taken by a lot of people to make school districts and all of us aware of how complicated this can be. A telling section in the Office of Education guide goes like this:       

Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities and events.

More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least six feet apart and do not share objects.

Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes.

And so right there we’re told that anything other than school over the internet puts children, teachers, and thereby all of us, at higher risk for covid-19. It seems to me we should have some truly overwhelming reasons to subject kids, their families, and the community at large to anything but the lowest risk possible.

Many reasons have been put forth in favor of the higher risk options: Classroom learning is the best, kids need social interaction, parents and guardians have to work, the economy has to function and so forth. These are all weighty reasons, but are they weighty enough to risk a child’s life, or a teacher’s life, or the life of a parent or someone else to whom infection could easily spread?

Then there are nitty gritty concerns. The standard in Sonoma County is six feet of social distancing in public places and everyone over two years old must wear a mask. “How in the world am I going to get any teaching done while trying to keep 24 kids six feet apart with their masks in place?” wonders a first grade teacher I talked to the other day. “And who gets to clean the bathrooms?”           

If it was wise and in the best interests of everyone to close the schools and go to online classes last March when the virus was not all that prevalent, how come we are about to open the schools now when the virus is running rampant? If we had done a better job of controlling the virus, perhaps schools could open more safely. But we didn’t do that, and the risk of being in school is greater than ever.

Maybe western Sonoma County is a blessed spot where the virus will stay away from our schools, but everything we know tells us that increased gathering and interaction bring increased rates of infection. To a significant proportion of us, infection brings terrible, even life-ruining illness or death. Do we really want to increase the risk of this happening to our children and teachers and to ourselves?

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