Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: School reopening faces seemingly insurmountable challenges

It’s going to get ugly.

That’s been my prevailing thought in the two weeks since exploring legal challenges to the Illinois State Board of Education’s COVID-19 guidelines for the rapidly approaching school year. There are so many stakeholders with conflicting interests it seems impossible to rectify everything with only four weeks remaining before the first students are scheduled to return.

Federal officials give conflicting messages about mandatory reopening, revised guidelines and loss of funding. Students involved in sports conditioning work test positive. The Illinois High School Association says practices can resume but within a week revises the rules such that some districts pull the plug entirely. Teacher unions raise concerns about unsafe work environments. Private schools advertise full days of in-class education while public school leaders are still meeting — online only, of course — to establish frameworks. Employers tap their toes wondering if and when mom and dad will be able to return to the office.

These are just the standard K-12 issues. Challenges multiply for colleges and other boarding schools where students come from out of state or around the globe, living on or near campus as a seemingly essential part of the overall experience. If you ever lived in a conventional dormitory, can you imagine trying to do so under the cloud of coronavirus?

Are we going to make bus drivers check temperatures before allowing students to board? Are we going to stagger high school periods so the entire student body isn’t crammed into hallways for the same six minutes multiple times each day? Who, precisely, is going to officiate the inevitable confrontation with a parent who insists their child will not wear a mask indoors?

Most rational folks are horrified by the viral videos of customers conflicting with shoppers and staff inside grocery markets and hardware stores, and it’s sheer denial to think that same scenario won’t play out on school playgrounds across the state only with the added leverage of “my tax dollars pay for this!” and the potential traumatization of young onlookers.

These challenges persist because, as recent history reveals, we lack significant agreement on the degree to which society should prioritize safety over commerce. Dramatic changes to routines are deeply unsettling. We don’t control nearly as much of our own daily lives as we’d like to believe, and not everyone is motivated by contributing to the greater good.

Local control is helpful — you don’t hear too many calls for consolidating school districts these days so one superintendent can enact a policy for an entire county — but no decisions will satisfy an entire community. There will be strife. Some people will indeed get seriously ill or die.

It already is ugly. It’s going to get worse.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at [ mailto:sholland@shawmedia.com ]sholland@shawmedia.com.

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