EDITORIAL: Time to get young Malheur County students back to regular classes

Kindergartner Zoe Iracheta, in her second day of school on Thursday, Nov. 5, at Alameda Elementary School, focuses on a lesson. The school returned about 65 students to classrooms for limited instruction. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

Gov. Kate Brown should give every elementary student in Malheur County a Christmas gift – a back-to-school order. With the right conditions, the youngest students who are losing the most in schooling could all be back in a classroom with their teachers and with each other. What better gift could they get?

No one questions the value of getting students from kindergarten through sixth grade back to school full time. “For many children and adolescents, schools are safe places to be while parents or guardians are working. For many families, schools are where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet and other vital services,” according to the American Academy of Pediatricians.

Area schools have successfully kept kids safe while getting them back in school at least for some of the school week. The Vale School District, under Superintendent Alisha McBride’s leadership, has returned nearly every student to school in a limited but effective way. Class sizes are now allowed up to 20. Teachers are showing up. Kids are learning. And there have been no Covid outbreaks.

What keeps the governor from opening the school doors wide is the continuing spread of the pandemic. In county after county, reported infections are climbing. In Malheur County, the number of people who have died of Covid is nearing 50. One day last week, 20 of your fellow citizens from the county were so ill with the virus that they were hospitalized.

Make no mistake. The virus is deadly. It is serious. It is not the flu, and anyone who still maintains that is best ignored. Who’s causing the spread?

Adults who won’t take simple steps, like wearing a mask or staying away from gatherings. The “it’s my liberty” argument is hollow. Let’s look at this from the school kid’s perspective.

The kids have done nothing – nothing at all – that keeps them home and out of class. They aren’t super spreaders, though they can become infected. They are, however, being punished in a sense because adults are misbehaving.

As a community, there is no higher priority right now than taking every possible step to get at least elementary schools opened. There is nothing magical about this. Adults have the power to bring down the infection rate. They have the ability to shield kids from the virus. The benefits of opening the schools would emerge quickly.

The prime benefit is getting the youngest students back on track. They are more protected from the virus in the sanitized environment of a classroom than they are floating around a community where the virus is rampant. They are better at learning when sitting in a classroom instead of a living room.

Families, particularly those of less means, would benefit hugely. Child care is unaffordable, if even available, for many of our local families. That means too many parents and adults caring for young children must pick between going to work or staying home. Working leaves children at home, alone, trying to navigate classes themselves. Staying home with school kids means lost income.

Returning elementary schools to full throttle won’t be easy. A key hurdle is getting students to schools – buses are still limited in how many passengers they can carry. And the extra measures to put a cocoon of safety around schools such as taking temperatures and sanitizing public fixtures are expensive and time consuming. But being hard to do doesn’t mean impossible. As a community, we can resolve these matters if we are driven by a focus on getting kids back in school where they belong.

Parents and the other adults in the lives of these students have to do their part. Maybe the school system can fashion a Parent Pledge – a promise from adults to their own kids that they will follow protocols in the community and at home to get them back to school. A role model, after all, is a powerful influence on youngsters. And such a pledge would put the responsibility where it belongs for keeping kids in school if they do go back full time. It would be adults ignoring their pledge who would lead to quarantines and another shutdown of schools.

Malheur County is far from out of the Covid swamp. Everyone is fatigued. Too many simply don’t buy the public health threat. Yet Brown’s decision to provide new rules for opening schools would be wise for students. And it would be a hopeful move instead of yet another round of “you can’t do [fill in the blank].” The chance to really go back to school would be a rallying cause, something good to aim for instead of enduring yet another slate of state restrictions.

This has to be done with great care, with absolute attention to medical advice, and by stilling our complaining voices. This must be for the kids, who need us all more than ever. – LZ