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It was the best that could have been done.

The vast majority of educators and students on Long Island haven’t taught or learned in a traditional classroom setting since March, thanks to COVID-19, and the shift to remote learning, followed by a pandemic summer, has been difficult for many. Kids are not learning as much as they could and many miss their friends and teachers. Those teachers miss their students, and the chance to use their best methods. And many parents have found attempts to work at home made more difficult by new child care responsibilities.

Nearly all teachers and parents and students spread among Long Island’s 124 school districts and its private schools hope the new academic year will bring a return to the classroom and a sense of normalcy, but they need to be convinced it’s safe.

It will be if they make it so.

The districts will operate under a variety of plans, but nearly all will have at least some distance learning and at least some in-person learning. With the distance plans, the biggest worry is how much the children will learn, and the answer will vary from place to place, household to household and student to student. With in-person learning, the biggest challenge is limiting the spread of coronavirus.

In both scenarios on Long Island the answer is “it depends,” and what it depends on is how well everybody does their part.

Pave a way forward

Public health experts now believe Long Island has a transmission rate that’s low enough to resume in-class learning with relative safety. The consensus is that positive test rates under 5% allow for a return to schools, and here it is less than 1%.

We’ve seen places with low transmission rates and strong protocols, like South Korea and the Australian state of New South Wales, resume schools with no sudden increases in infections.

But we’ve also seen disasters, like an overnight camp and a high school in Georgia where a lack of masks and social distancing led to hundreds of infections. In an Israeli high school, students studying without masks in classrooms with the windows shut and air-conditioning running, resulted in 153 students, 25 staffers and 87 friends and family members becoming infected.

Until last week, many Long Island superintendents were saying they were not ready, because they were being asked to post plans on testing, quarantining and contact tracing that they lacked the ability to design. Most breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday when Nassau and Suffolk health departments jointly released clear guidelines on the protocols that left districts more confident in the process.

So what should Long Islanders do?

Learning and socializing in schools is so beneficial, especially to elementary-school children, that each district should prioritize in-person learning. If a return to classrooms can be done safely, it must be done soon. Distance learning has been hard on everyone, and disastrous for households that lack a parent at home, a good study space, computational devices and internet access. It’s also been disastrous for the economy as parents find themselves unable to leave home to work or focus when working there. 

New York State, reeling from COVID-19 and desperate for cash, has withheld $1.7 billion in local funding since June, including $324 million in school aid. Meanwhile, in Washington, GOP congressional leaders and President Donald Trump have offered no plan to shore up state or school funding.

And the schools won’t reopen until teachers feel safe.

The national American Federation of Teachers says it will support any union that strikes over health concerns. The New York City union appears likely to do so by demanding testing of every student before classes start and a shutdown of any school where one infection is found, requirements the city likely cannot meet.

On Long Island, the unions have been less aggressive, but when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced schools could reopen, New York State United Teachers President Andy Palotta argued many districts were not ready and concluded, “If districts need to phase in the reopening of buildings, so be it. We must err on the side of caution. Period.” Palotta’s concerns are valid, particularly in districts that truly cannot reopen safely, but in those where the plans are safe and can be carried out, the energy needs to go toward making those plans work.

Safety protocols

So how do we reopen schools safely, so that they can stay open? These are the basic steps: 

  • Convince students to keep their masks on their faces and keep their distance from other children, before, during and after school.
  • Be generous and honest: if you don’t need a spot on a bus or in a classroom, or if your kid will be distance learning, tell the district as soon as possible.
  • Keep kids who are even a bit sick home. 
  • Keep older and less healthy household members protected.
  • Keep older and less healthy teachers out of the classroom and in distance-learning assignments.
  • Follow guidelines on testing, tracing and quarantining.
  • Keep kids who cannot or will not follow protocols in distance-learning programs or create special accommodations.
  • Have school nurses, teachers and parents working as a team to spot potential cases and stop the spread. 

There is an answer to the question “Is it safe to send kids back to school?” Yes, but only if we do what is required to keep everyone safe.

— The editorial board