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A return to schools this fall

In-class instruction should be allowed where it's possible.

In-class instruction should be allowed where it's possible. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Amy Mitchell

Five weeks from now, Long Island’s children will return to school, masked and distanced and ready to resume their studies and some grasp on normality.

Or they won’t.

The reality is some will go and some won’t, and some will attend full time, and others will head to their schools only sporadically.

Whether they do return to their buildings will depend, first, on what the positive rate of coronavirus tests in the region, currently at about 1%, is at that time. Right now, all indications are that the number will remain well below the 5% threshold Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set as a requirement for a broad resumption of in-classroom study.

Cuomo is expected to discuss the infection rate later this week, but on Monday he emphasized that the issue mostly is one of both local control and parental discretion.

And that’s as it should be, for a decision on schools could be a matter of life and death in many ways. The stakes are high in terms of contracting COVID-19, the in-person education kids need to succeed and the crucial auxiliary services schools provide.

Were New York’s coronavirus situation anything like the infection-ravaged regions in other parts of the nation, return to the classrooms would not be considered right now.

But it is not.

So the decision to return should be considered, carefully, by elected school boards and superintendents because a return to in-person learning has proven to be the best educational method. However, a return to schools should be allowed only where it’s possible to conform with all guidelines, and with a quick willingness to pull back and shut down if the situation worsens.

Some students fared decently with distance learning this spring, while others suffered academically and emotionally. Some students live in households with older or ill relatives to whom exposure to the coronavirus can be deadly. The same is true of teachers. Some, because of age or illness, should not be exposed to the virus.

Every district has at least part of its plan devoted to full-time distance-learning. So every family has a choice. Every teacher truly in need of accommodation should, too. And every district has significant challenges in providing a safe campus and transportation. They must keep students masked and socially distanced, which is harder than just saying they can in a written plan.

The approval of a vaccine that the public has confidence in taking, and that the federal government can distribute and administer with precision, is not happening before 2021. The tough decisions about returning to school buildings this fall can’t be based on the idea that it will.

Society cannot come up with and impose one perfect and easy answer on schooling this fall. School districts have been asked to provide options tailored for all these circumstances. Families need to be able to decide for themselves, because they are the best judges of the risks and rewards presented by returning to campus, or declining to do so.

— The editorial board