Families and educators in Malheur County got a grand gift just before Christmas when Gov. Kate Brown declared schools should open. That should lift spirits across the county, but don’t go tossing your face mask quite yet. There is considerable work ahead to put the plan into play.

Brown and her staff recognized what has become evident in recent weeks. Schools aren’t spreaders of the Covid infection. Gathering students and teachers doesn’t seem to trigger a medical game of tag. In some ways, kids are more protected in the classroom than they are out in the community.

The governor has decided that the state won’t use health measures as roadblocks to education. The numbers that have kept kids out of school are now advice, not a regulation. That means even in Malheur County, which holds the unenviable title for the worst Covid infection rates in Oregon, can get kids back to school in the coming weeks.

But for school districts, a lot has to happen before kids are back in front of teachers for a full day. Busing will be a challenge. Now, kids have to be spaced out on bus seats. That rule may change but for now it will be an expensive and perplexing task to get kids to and from schools. There will be questions of meal service. And then what of parents who don’t want kids back into classrooms quite yet? School leaders will have to decide whether going back to class is mandatory, grade by grade.

And the governor’s announcement left unclear what becomes of the other elements of school life. Can the school band get back together, and not just on Zoom? School clubs, particularly in high schools, are important. The issue is how those can be restored while keeping everyone healthy. And then school sports competition, wide open in Idaho but on ice in Oregon, needs yet another review.

One worry is that some may consider the governor’s change a flag of victory. But no, the school change doesn’t mean the health risk of Covid suddenly disappeared. The people of Malheur County must be smart about what risk remains. Yes, we’re bringing cases down and the rate of positive tests is dropping week by week. That’s not by magic. That’s because enough people see the sense of wearing masks, doing elbow bumps instead of handshakes, and avoiding big gatherings.

Until science and medicine say otherwise, those basics of life need to continue. The pandemic is still taking a toll locally. Last week, Malheur County lost its 50th citizen to the virus. Nearly 3,000 have been infected. For enough of those infected, the virus has proven a tough opponent, causing long illnesses that some are still recovering from. That’s important to recognize in the face of sending kids and teachers back to school.

The community should be eager to send those kids back with lunch boxes and back packs. They should be wary about sending them back carrying Covid. The same goes for educators, bus drivers and class aides. They all didn’t suddenly become immune. They run the same risk of getting exposed and sickened in the community because of people who value freedom over common sense. That freedom, though, could end up infecting a teacher who goes back to school unaware they are carrying. The result? An entire class get shut down, kids go home and schooling for that one room is upended.

No one wants that. In the coming weeks, the community should pay close attention to what school leaders and health officials tell us. All of us should do what they ask, whether it’s ensuring families are avoiding exposure or helping with school-related tasks.

We have come far in the recent weeks to convince the state to relent and get students back in school. Now, all of us need to do our part to get them there – and keep them there. - LZ

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