Potato SmilesLet’s get back to school. Let’s get back to friendships, potato smiles, and learning. It’s time for students to enjoy some normalcy in a fun and familiar place. For many children, life away from school is neither normal, nor fun, and it would be a mistake for us to presume otherwise. Classrooms were built for learning and laughter; taxes were paid to educate kids in the most optimal way. It’s time for the majority of us to answer the school bell in person, at least those who can safely do so.

Clearly we face a new threat these days. Everyone realizes that pandemic risks can’t be completely controlled. If we could control them, they would cease to fit the very definition of the word “risk.” These threats can be managed, however, much like all other risks students face. Risk Management departments are pretty common. Risk Elimination departments don’t exist. And so it is in public education.

Schools don’t attempt to mitigate every risk with a one-size-fits-all approach. One-size-fits-all fits nobody well. Protecting kids from allergic reactions to food or bee stings, for example, looks far different than protecting them from playground accidents or crosswalk dangers. Johnny doesn’t forego recess because a bee sting could be catastrophic for him, and Susie doesn’t skip lunch because her peanut allergy produces anaphylactic shock. Billy uses the crosswalk safely every day, thanks to trained  school staff, and in spite of 350 rolling threats known as automobiles. Given the multitude of daily risks, schools remain statistically one of the safest environments in our culture because of caring adults who help students navigate threats. Our collective track record is nothing short of remarkable, and COVID-19 is not likely to change that. Schools have been managing ever-evolving risks since the days of one-room schoolhouses.

Certainly, school year 2020-2021 will be an experience unlike any other. Nonetheless, our students should still experience school year 2020-2021. These experiences should ideally be as close to normal as safely possible. We can implement common sense, protective measures for those students who attend in person. We can even provide virtual instruction for those students who don’t come to campus. Simulating social interactions in a virtual environment, on the other hand, is simply impossible. And social interactions are a critical part of the learning experience at all grade levels. Brick and mortar classrooms remain the best places for learning about core subjects, related arts, and social dynamics.

We need students back on campus. Our approach to risk management, like our approach to instruction, must remain differentiated. I believe it will. Do students and staff experience risks on a normal school day? Of course they do; however, the countless benefits of school, generally speaking, outweigh the costs of assuming those risks. That was true before this pandemic, and it holds true even now in these strange times with strange new threats. Let’s answer that school bell and get as many kids as possible back on campus, where learning is optimal and safety has always been the top priority. Besides, I can’t eat all these potato smiles by myself.