Restaurants and retail stores may be reopening their doors, but Maine’s economy won’t really be open until the kids are back in school.

Parents, who have been juggling child care and home schooling since March won’t be able to fully re-enter the workforce until their children are out of the house on a reliable schedule. That means that schools will have to reopen before there is a coronavirus vaccine or an effective treatment.

School officials in Maine have three months to figure out how to make that work, using guidelines provided by the state Department of Education. Two things are clear: It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be cheap.

In a draft framework released June 11, the department said it will make the determination on reopening schools, in consultation with officials from the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It will be up to local officials to figure out schedules and classroom configurations to achieve physical distancing. According to the draft, staff will be required to wear masks and students will be encouraged to do so.

The state plan calls on schools to provide protective gear and enhanced cleaning regimens, which may require hiring staff. Avoiding crowding on school buses and in classrooms could require staggered schedules so that not every student is in school at the same time. That will also come at a cost.

How much? It’s hard to say. It will likely vary from district to district and will depend on the number of students who attend school and the space available to the district. According to a study by the Association of School Business Officials International, the average American school district would have to pay an additional $1.8 million.

That number would likely be much lower in Maine’s many small districts, but whatever it is, it will be more than they can afford without help. State income and sales tax revenues are falling, and local governments are preparing for a tough year ahead by passing zero-increase budgets. That could force districts to lay off teachers to afford janitors and bus drivers, or continue distance learning in the fall.

Either choice would be a bad outcome, and not just for the effect it would have on working parents.

Some teachers and some students can easily adapt to distance learning, but it’s not true of everyone. Despite heroic efforts by educators to build community and keep students engaged while they work from home, many students lost valuable ground this spring.

“Coursework and content are a small piece of what students gain from their education,” wrote Dr. Kathleen Fairfield of Falmouth, a physician-scientist and mother, in a May 15 column in the Press Herald. “Interactions with peers and faculty as well as extracurricular activities have immeasurable value.”

Classes may be done for the year, but school officials are going to have a busy summer if they plan any in-person education in the fall. They are not the only ones who need to get to work.

With state revenues tanking, and local governments in crisis mode, Congress and the White House have got to approve another rescue bill.

The House passed the $3 trillion Heroes Act more than a month ago, which would send about $1 trillion to state and local governments ease the pressure on school budgets. So far the Senate has been too busy confirming federal judges to answer with their version of an aid package.

Until they act, school districts will be forced to make some awkward choices that won’t serve anyone.

 

 

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