PERRY: LEARNING CURBS — Only solid commitment will keep schools on track during the pandemic

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Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Scott Siegfried last week offered up a quintessential paradox in bringing students back to school in the midst of a virus pandemic: Deaf students and teachers can’t read lips hidden behind masks.

Siegfried listed that problem among the dizzying catalogue of thousands of obstacles Cherry Creek and every other school district in the state faces as the drumbeat grows to reopen schools. Reporter Grant Stringer details the health and economic storm brewing for schools in this week’s Sentinel Colorado cover story.

It doesn’t matter whether you side with the myriad credible experts or the noisy ranks of armchair epidemiologists who scoff at the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have to deal with reality.

Reality for Siegfried, and dozens of Colorado superintendents like him, is that schools and classrooms look and act like they do because they work. Kids and teachers need to interact in person for learning to be optimal, regardless what grade they’re in. And kids interacting with each other is a learning exponent. After months away, kids all over the state desperately need to be back in class, Siegfried and statewide educators agree.

Schools, however, by their very nature, are ideal places to transmit the COVID-19 virus.

In a nightmare pandemic world filled with only bad and worse choices, Siegfried is living the dream. Reopen schools, even on a limited basis, and Colorado runs the very real risk of quickly spreading the virus, and possibly even killing susceptible students and teachers. Continue at-home-only schooling, and hundreds of thousands of students run the very real risk of falling behind in a way that could dog them for years, maybe even the rest of their lives.

All of that isn’t the worst part for Siegfried. He’s worried most about schools being caught dead center in the growing political war between pandemic believers and non-believers.

What happens when parents refuse to allow their kids to wear a mask in school? What do school officials do when a student purposely taunts other students by keeping too close to them or coughing all day for effect?

Sigfried has good reason to be afraid. There are plenty of aggravated political forces inside and out of the school district backing President Donald Trump’s delusional and debunked version of the pandemic. Not far from Cherry Creek’s largest schools, a Douglas County restaurant became ground zero on Mother’s Day for people who either don’t believe or care that mixing it up in person could create a pandemic calamity. State Rep. Patrick Neville, the House Republican minority leader, is at the front of that parade of deniers saying this is all a Democratic Party plot. He’s certain the conspiracy is something heinous, and that he can’t figure out what it is doesn’t matter. As if Democrats have always shown great disdain for education, jobs and keeping people healthy at all costs.

Like so many Fox Newsies, he can’t grasp that this is all about the numbers.  

All this closure and confinement has never been about the impossible task of snuffing the virus, no matter what Trump or his legion of noisy freedom fighters say. It’s about beating the odds of so many people being critically sickened at the same time that hospitals become overrun for weeks, maybe months, and people die in their cars in emergency room parking lots.

That’s still what it’s about.

Even the country’s biggest bleeding hearts understand that sending the nation over an economic cliff with prolonged public closures is as bad or worse than bodies stacking up in the back lot of Denver General Hospital. So like Gov. Jared Polis points out, it’s an unsavory matter of balance for the foreseeable future.

Pandemics are all about the odds for government leaders — and for Siegfried.

The odds aren’t in Siegfried’s favor.

The math doesn’t add up in trying to get most, let alone all, kids back into classrooms with teachers. The ballpark number is that schools will be able to get about half as many kids into classrooms as they do now, and provide social distancing of about 6 feet, which, along with mandatory masking, provably reduces virus transmission. 

That means kids can be in school half the time they normally would. They must go for fewer days or fewer hours, or at a different time. If we want all kids to go to school every day, we need about twice as much classroom space and twice as many teachers. That takes a lot of money.

Money, the lack of it, is about to become a very big issue. The economic crisis created by the pandemic means Cherry Creek is poised to have tens of millions of dollars or more slashed from its existing budget. You can see where this is going.

While there’s a lot we don’t know about this new coronavirus, we do know that three things affect its spread: How close you are to someone infected with the virus, how enclosed the shared space is, and how long you’re with an infected person. That’s why masked people 6-feet from each other passing briefly pose a low-risk for transmission. And that’s why people near each other for an hour in a school bus sealed against the outside cold, or in a classroom, provide excellent conditions for spreading the virus.

And what makes controlling the pandemic even harder is the fact that about half of the people shedding the virus don’t know it because they have no symptoms.

So the reality is, Siegfried’s job isn’t about re-starting schools with the goal of keeping about 70,000 students and teachers virus free. Some kids and staff returning to public schools in August will bring the virus with them. Siegfried and other superintendents are tasked with reducing the odds of schools turning into flaming COVID-19 outbreaks.

All of this will take more money, more resources and more shared commitment. When schools are inevitably closed as the virus returns, phone companies and others need to help provide WiFi access to needy families. Parents are going to have to be able to stay home, or safe day-care centers are going to have to be available.

Public schools have been a focus of American and world governments for so many generations because, next to public safety, it’s the most important job the government does.

The more students return to school, the less safe it becomes for students, teachers and the entire community. The more students try to teach themselves at home, the more likely it is they’ll fall behind.

Next week, state lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene and take on the Herculean task of sorting all this out. Likewise, city councils, county commissions and even Congress will be charged with choosing priorities.

Giving schools and educators support and resources, not just lip service or ultimatums, has just risen to the top of the list.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]