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“Our children are our future and one of the basic responsibilities is to care for them in the best and most compassionate manner possible,” Nelson Mandela said.
In my 30 year career, I have worked as a public school teacher, both in elementary and high schools; an administrator and supervisor of teaching interns; an after-school caregiver; and most importantly, a mother. The most basic understanding, the most principled concept of caring for children as adults on whom they depend is in providing them protection, security, empathy, love and healthy choices.
The decision by our federal government to push to return our children to school amid the growing number of deaths and positive COVID-19 cases is reprehensible. And we all know it.
It has been a long five months. Mainer’s have done an extraordinary job of keeping cases down, of adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and understanding the depth and breadth of this pandemic. Gov. Janet Mills has taken it seriously, we have opened our economy slowly and as a result, we live in one of the states with the lowest cases per capita.
So why change that? Opening schools right now is putting our children, our teachers and our administrators on the front lines. President Donald Trump has likened this virus to war, and himself to a “wartime president.” Would we send our children to war?
I live in Orono, but I can easily extend these thoughts to include the greater Bangor area. My municipality is awaiting, as are many in Maine, the arrival of out-of-state students, parents and guardians. This will happen in less than three weeks. My community, which houses the flagship campus of the University of Maine, where cases have been minimal, will be flooded with thousands of new Mainers and others from outside Maine. Other college communities around our state are also awaiting their incoming students.
While CDC policy and testing procedure is in place, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will not see an outbreak, that local merchants and restaurants will be safe, that our supermarket workers, our mall shopping areas will be safe, or that our apartment complexes and dorms will be COVID-free. It seems not only improbable, but impossible that this can happen. Given what we know about this virus so far, can we realistically rely on complete containment? On quarantine?
I feel for all superintendents who are considering opening schools, especially in our area at the same time as our universities and colleges bring students in from states with much higher rates of infection. I feel for parents who are stressed by “plans” and educational choices that involve their families’ health. And mostly, I feel for our youngest, who have no voice.
When federal lawmakers, who should be taking care of our youngest citizens in the “best and most compassionate manner possible” do not step up and say, “No, we are not ready. No, we will not sacrifice the health and safety of youth,” what does that say about our society as a whole?
The responsible decision would be to hold off on a return to school at least until October, possibly January, until we can see, with more clarity, the way forward.
There is no right way to do the wrong thing. When something as intuitive as keeping our young safe becomes a conundrum — an exhausting exercise in how to contain the spirit of play to six feet apart, how to control traffic patterns so families don’t run into each other, how to maintain social distance behind plexiglass while helping a student understand a complex math problem, how to even sing without contracting a deadly pathogen — then it’s not right. We need to take a stand, we need to decide what’s worth it. We need to come to a decision that it’s not time, yet, to open schools and to put our children in danger.
Cheryl Robertson is an Orono town councilor and an educator.