Editorial: Finding 'right thing' is first goal as communities, schools confront remote learning

  • A drive-through COVID-19 testing site was held Wednesday at Libertyville High School. The District 128 school board decided Tuesday to delay the start of a hybrid in-school model.

      A drive-through COVID-19 testing site was held Wednesday at Libertyville High School. The District 128 school board decided Tuesday to delay the start of a hybrid in-school model. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 10/23/2020 12:06 PM

Pat Groody, president of the Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 Board of Education, sums up the job facing school leaders in the COVID-19 era about as succinctly as can be done.

"We're not being asked to do the easy thing here," he told an emergency Zoom board meeting with 1,000 participants watching. "We're being asked to do the right thing."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Would that "the right thing" were immediately obvious to everyone in every situation. When it comes to schools finding the perfect balance between remote and in-person learning, it decidedly is not. School boards and administrations have struggled to develop reopening plans amid erratic infection rates and mounting pressure from students and parents calling for greater availability of in-person alternatives.

For Dist. 128's board on Tuesday, the "right thing" was to delay the start of its hybrid reopening model by two weeks. The decision came on the heels of data from the Lake County Health Department indicating "substantial" community transmission of COVID-19. School systems throughout Lake County responded with similar delays or adjustments to reopening plans, and districts across the suburbs are watching numbers that grow more disappointing by the day to see if they're going to have to make modifications.

It cannot be easy, to return to Groody's phrase, for school boards and administrators to face angry crowds of students and parents and insist that remote learning continue. Obviously, it also is not easy for parents and students to watch the school year slipping away, nor for all of us to consider the potential harm looming for disadvantaged and educationally at-risk students.

And yet, there's no discounting the infection -- and mortality -- numbers. They're climbing steadily, and while there's nothing so far to suggest that reopened public and private schools have much to do with that, the potential for them to deepen the risk is clear.

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Palatine Township Elementary District 15, for instance, completed a "rolling re-entry" process last week and while officials found it "reassuring" that some early increases in infection numbers appeared to be originating from outside the school's buildings rather than inside, that comfort level may be short-lived. For, if students, teachers and staff are bringing the disease into the school setting, it may be only a matter of time before disease spreads within the schools and back out into the general population.

The potential for that type of transmission is a fear that all school board members have a responsibility to weigh.

Whatever the case, it is also clear that there is no same "right thing" for every school district. Recognizing that, officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health told ProPublica and The Chicago Tribune that the agency soon will begin providing school-specific data statewide that can help students, parents and school leaders make better decisions together about how to respond in their specific situation.

That will be a valuable aid to parents and school leaders, of course. It may make deciding what to do about reopening schools easier. It still won't make it easy, but hopefully it will offer a better chance to get it right.

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