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Reopening Schools is a Dangerous Fantasy

July 17th, 2020 by dk

Can I just say out loud what many people are thinking? It’s a dangerous fantasy to suppose that schools can reopen this fall in any recognizable fashion. No amount of hand sanitizer, face shields, and rearranged furniture will keep everyone safe.

This creates a huge problem for working parents, for employers, and for society at large. We’ve already lost pedagogic momentum, with no end in sight. Unless and until we reduce infections to a handful, matched with the means to effectively trace any pre-symptomatic connections, we’re not just asking for trouble. We’re begging for it.

We’ve rehearsed the costs connected to a further academic shutdown, but none of it has dissuaded the novel coronavirus from continuing to spread. Millions of people fall down every day, and yet there hasn’t been a movement to repeal gravity. Or maybe there is, somewhere on Twitter or Reddit. Some hard truths cannot be wished away.

Start with the youngest students. Oregon’s tightening regulations have exempted children under 12 from wearing masks in public. Somebody in Salem has apparently seen a child in the real world. It’s important that these youngest feel safe and be safe. That won’t be inside a school anytime soon.

Education is inherently collective. Children learn together. There’s always a level of social engagement that accelerates effort. Sometimes it’s negative — fear of falling behind or being embarrassed. Sometimes it’s positive — impressing a peer or satisfying the teacher.

Education is never a fully shielded experience, mentally or physically. If it was, flash cards would have replaced teachers centuries ago.

Even if we take absolutely every precaution, and somehow enforce those measures without instilling fear or provoking rebellion, it won’t be enough. Kids still need to go to the bathroom. Look up “toilet plume.” It has its own wikipedia page.

Children may feel no symptoms, but what about everyone else they see in a day? How will we protect teachers, administrators, janitors, parents, and grandparents? Imagine Jeffy’s dotted line itinerary in a Family Circus cartoon where everyone who crossed that dotted line became exposed to the virus. It wouldn’t be funny.

Now consider students in high school or college. We can’t get them to wear helmets when skateboarding, and gravity has had its own wikipedia page for longer than the toilet plume. Older students differ from younger ones mostly in their skill at pledging obedience until they think no one is looking. This is not an improvement; it’s an adaptation.

Most college kids want to return to full-time in-person instruction. They claim they have no plans for partying. Yeah, right. Universities seize on these pledges as if they can be believed. Unlike Salem’s lawmakers, college administrators must not know any students.

Society has gotten itself tangled in its own assumptions. Our economy needs both parents working. Parents need schools to raise and feed their kids. Schools need athletes to produce camaraderie and revenue. How many tails are wagging how many dogs here? 

Safety should come first, for children and families. The right decision here is difficult but not unclear. Why do we have such trouble choosing?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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