President Donald Trump is right. Kids throughout the country need to be back in their schools this fall.

But if returning to in-person instruction is a priority, we need to treat it like one.

It will take more than a threatening tweet from the president to reopen schools safely — it is going to take the kind of concerted, comprehensive effort that has challenged the country during the pandemic.

With less than two months before the start of school, it will be difficult. But it is necessary.

STUDENTS FALLING BEHIND

The prolonged absence from school has left all students behind, with children from low-income families falling the furthest. It has been traumatic for some students, and detrimental to the educational and social development of all of them.

Experts are worried about the staggering long-term effects of a prolonged break from school. Because of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doing what it takes to open schools this fall. “Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being,” the group said in a recent statement.

Parents, too, need a break. Most found it difficult to work from home while also trying to keep their kids on track with schoolwork. Those that couldn’t work from home were put in an even more trying bind.

Parents and kids both want and need schools to open. How to do that safely is coming into focus through state and federal guidelines.

OPENING SAFELY

Schools will have to reconfigure their buildings to adhere to physical distancing. Cleanliness and personal hygiene will be critical. Faculty and staff will be required to wear masks, and students will be encouraged to do so.

But some details remain in question. How do you spread students out in schools or on buses that are already crowded? Do you stagger schedules, or have students alternate days in and out of school, as many are planning? Either way, the school day remains far from what it was in the past, and becomes disruptive to home, work and school schedules.

Some are suggesting instead a strategy that depends more on widespread, frequent testing than distancing to prevent an outbreak. It is not mentioned by the state or federal guidelines, but an effective track-and-trace system for schools would allow them to operate at something closer to normal while catching cases before they spread.

Even if states and schools embrace a testing strategy, however, it’s not clear the country can pull it off. As a whole, testing capacity remains far too low, a result of the recent spike in cases as well as laboratory backlogs and supply shortages.

A NATIONAL STRATEGY

Those problems should sound familiar — they’re the same problems the country faced at the outset of the pandemic. Months in, there remains no national strategy for making sure there is enough testing.

There is also not nearly enough funding for state and local governments. The House has already passed the HEROES Act. Now, the Senate must act. It will be expensive to meet the safety guidelines — even without a testing component, the state estimates it will take $320 million in Maine alone.

It would also help to know more about how children are affected by and spread the virus, which would let schools focus on efforts that truly prevent spread. The research is lagging.

And if we want schools to safely, the country has to focus on getting cases of COVID-19 down everywhere. While states such as Maine have done a good job suppressing the virus, others have been more cavalier. Spikes in those states divert resources and keep the virus alive, forcing everyone to take more extreme precautions, and hold them for a longer period of time.

If we want schools to open safely, we have to give them the resources to do so. We have to have ample protections for students, staff and faculty, and enough testing to know when something goes wrong.

And we have to dedicate ourselves to doing the right thing elsewhere, all over the country and all at once, in a way we haven’t yet really pulled off during the pandemic.

Everyone needs to wear a mask when appropriate. We need to recognize the most dangerous activities and avoid them universally for as long as it takes.

Otherwise, we’ll be asking for more outbreaks like those now occurring in the Sunbelt states, and schools will have to shut down again.

If that happens, we’ll be right back where we were this spring, with kids, parents and communities suffering because we didn’t have the will to do what was right.

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