Maybe it’s an inappropriate metaphor, given the risk of death that COVID-19 poses.

Still, the schools and school districts throughout Mississippi and the rest of the nation, when trying to decide about whether to reopen for the fall semester, have to “pick their poison.”

There is no risk-free option out there. Whichever way school leaders go, there are going to be negative consequences. It’s a matter of deciding which are the least harmful.

In this community, we’re going to be able to observe both approaches and compare.

The private schools and the Carroll County public school district are going to mostly go with in-person instruction; the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District is going to start off with nothing but distance learning.

The risk, of course, with in-person learning is that people are going to get sick. The virus is too contagious, no matter how far students are spread out or whether they are religious about wearing masks and using hand sanitizer, for it not to spread at least somewhat.

How will the schools respond when it inevitably does? Will they shut down an infected classroom or even the whole school? Will they have constant interruptions so that after a while everyone starts wondering what was the point of bringing the students back into their buildings? Will the schools face recriminations if children, infected but showing no symptoms, bring the virus home to their parents or grandparents, who don’t fare so well after contracting it?

The “safe” approach adopted by the Greenwood Leflore district, though, is really not all that safe either.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who is reviewing this weekend the start-up plans of all of the state’s 140 school districts, tweeted out on Friday the following pertinent observation from Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Redfield is among the health experts advising the federal and state governments on what they need to be doing.

“It’s not the risk of school openings versus public health. It’s public health versus public health,” he said. “And I’m of the point of view that the greater risk to the nation is actually to keep these schools closed. You know, a lot of kids get their mental health services, over 7 million, in school A lot of people get food and nutrition in schools. Schools are really important in terms of mandatory reporting sexual and child abuse. Obviously, the socialization is important. And, obviously, for some kids, I think actually a majority of kids, their learning in a face-to-face school is the most effective method of teaching. That said, it has to be done safely, and it has to be done with the confidence of the teachers. It has to be done with the confidence of parents.”

The teachers who are doing distance learning are going to try their best to get the material across and mastered via the internet or packets sent home. The results will probably be better than in the spring. When the outbreak shut everything down in March, distance learning was new territory for most elementary and secondary schools. The teachers have had time now to practice.

But even if distance learning improves, it’s not going to be good enough, especially for those in the earliest grades. Can you imagine, for example, trying to teach a class of kindergartners or first graders, whose attention spans run in the minutes, not hours, how to read over a remote hookup? It’s not going to happen, unless the parents are heavily involved in the process. And not all parents have either the patience or the aptitude or the time to do that, if they have to go to work themselves.

Dating back to the beginning of the outbreak, we’re now looking at a minimum of six months during which children in the Leflore County public schools have either had less-than-ideal instruction or, because of the summer break, no instruction. How long can that go on, particularly for kids from impoverished backgrounds, before the learning deficit gets so large that they will never recover from it?

The Greenwood Leflore district is also leaning toward cancelling football and all fall sports because school officials don’t think they can hold practices and games safely.

The concern is understandable, particularly for a sport such as football, in which there is so much up-close, in-your-face physical contact.

Cancelling the season, though, is not just a matter of disappointing the players, their parents and the teams’ fans.

It could potentially drive up the dropout rate and the teen pregnancy rate, and even lead to increased violence in the streets.

Sports is a proven motivator for some kids to come to school. It also is a healthy outlet for the teenage energy that has to get expressed in some way or other.

Take that outlet away, and what do you think these kids will do instead? It won’t be crossword puzzles, rest assured.

These are not easy calculations when lives are at stake and no decision is safe. But keeping schools closed, in the long run, might be the most unsafe of all.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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