Editorial: As school resumes, keeping students in classrooms remains top priority

A public school teacher who lives on the North Fork recently told an editor for this newspaper that the school year that ended last spring during the pandemic was excruciatingly difficult.

She explained that she had students in her classroom for in-person instruction, but also had a laptop on her desk so she could teach and interact with other students at home. Doing both simultaneously, she explained, made her feel that neither group was getting her full focus and attention.

We are now less than a week from schools opening and debate continues at local Board of Education meetings about whether masks should be required of students and staff inside district buildings.

Since the pandemic erupted last year, experts have consistently said that masks protect people from infections and save lives. Masks protect the person wearing them and the people around that person. It’s as common sense as the server who brings your dinner washing their hands after using the bathroom and before serving you. The server may think it’s a personal “freedom” not to wash them — but then they should find another line of work.

New York’s newly sworn-in governor, Kathy Hochul, said Tuesday that she is requiring everyone in schools statewide to wear masks. She said she will direct the Department of Health to require universal masking for anyone entering a school building. Earlier, her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo had said he lacked such legal authority.

Such an order from the state trumps different policies at the school district level. School boards can debate this subject all they want and can sit there while residents in the audience shout out their abuse. But this school year, nothing should get in the way of all students returning to in-classroom learning.

This is really the line that must be drawn in the sand as the school year begins, as COVID-19 continues its rampage in many parts of the country and as ICUs in some states run out of room because of the spread of the Delta variant.

All students, from kindergartners to high school seniors, must be back in the classroom next month. We have all read statistics about the tens of thousands of students nationwide who all but dropped out of school as hybrid and fully remote models were established.

Even before the pandemic, American students were said to be far behind their counterparts in other countries in areas such as math and science. As a nation built on entrepreneurship and smarts — consider President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon in a decade, which was accomplished — we can lag behind no longer.

Over the years American greatness has taken many forms. But perhaps the most critical is our education system, from kindergarten through colleges and universities. A high-quality education must be available to all students, from rich or poor districts, rural or urban. And that requires in-classroom, face-to-face instruction.

If we want to succeed in tackling the enormous challenges we now face, there is no alternative.