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Together and apart in return to school

The daunting experiment of sending students and teachers to school during a pandemic that still has no vaccine is underway. Planners and educators have devised schedules and physical arrangements to keep students apart while together. In the name of what's best for the development of children and adolescents, schools are open. Buses are rolling.

Many school systems started with a struggle, such as Hartford, where a ransomware attack disabled the computer network to be used by teachers and families, delaying the first day of school. All schools are dealing with uncertainty and untried systems of scheduling and blended learning. And there will be no going up the down staircase; follow the arrows or risk infection.

The state-led, locally planned experiment will be confusing for a while; risky until students, staff, bus drivers and parents are vaccinated; and may or may not give students normal levels of foundational skills. Still, it is impressive and encouraging. With ingenuity and resolve, educators determined that they would connect all children to online access for learning at home and open schools to all those whose parents choose to send them. Teachers, with justifiable reservations about their own safety and the risk to their families if they contract the COVID virus, are showing up.

There are bright spots, including the fact that virtually all New London Public Schools students now have a device and a hotspot. That's an achievement that once appeared unlikely. The effort that state and local educators and public health advisors have mounted in the face of the odds reminds us of the Navy Seabees: "Can do."

Staff, students and parents are bracing for an unfamiliar, peculiar sort of schooling. Among the challenges will be morphing in-person class sizes as parents opt in or out for their children; disruptions when someone tests positive and their class cohort is considered exposed; balancing of assignments and in-person learning; and keeping schools disinfected.

The odds that there will be exposures and cases of infection ought to serve as a sobering reminder of what contemporary life would be like without vaccination against highly contagious diseases. That schools could have operated without the restrictions they face this year is because most people had immunity to measles and other serious diseases. The closing of school for any contagion — usually influenza or a stomach virus — was local, fairly rare and short term. Lack of a coronavirus vaccine is making these arduous, frankly risky arrangements a necessity.

Both the risk and the responses to the virus threat are having unforeseen consequences, and undoubtedly there will be more. Will there be any need for snow days, if students can do their assignments online at home? School calendars might make it through the year unaltered by weather-related closings. We foresee updated instructional models created by talented, innovative teachers, and digital learning becoming intrinsic to the curriculum, as it is in everyday life with cell phones, video games and online interactions.

There may well be shortfalls that take more than one hybrid-model school year to overcome. K-8 students trying to learn from home last spring most likely have gaps in the foundational education that goes with each grade level, and high school students lost access to laboratories and studios. When this is over we trust the same educators who have set up Connecticut's approach to the 2020-21 school year will have a plan for evaluation and remediation, particularly as younger students move into higher grades.

Last spring it was health care workers who achieved heroic levels of professionalism in treating patients. The crisis is far from over, but in Connecticut it has reached a stage in which educators can try to do what only they can do for students. We wish these latest heroes and their classes success and good health.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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