Daily Herald opinion: New school year opens optimistically regarding pandemic - but cautiously

  • Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Ocampo organizes some of the new desks last week as she prepares for the return of students at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park.

      Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Ocampo organizes some of the new desks last week as she prepares for the return of students at Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 8/9/2022 6:55 AM
This editorial is the consensus opinon of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

From the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have known that the school environment is a prime breeding ground for the rapid spread of disease. In schools numbering from the hundreds to the thousands of students, children sit close together in classrooms, pass shoulder to shoulder in hallways, have erratic hygiene habits and bring to school a wide array of germs, which they trade liberally among each other and their teachers then take home an even wider array to share with their families.

That's one reason schools have been such an important focus in the fight against COVID-19. Now, for the first time in two years, suburban students are returning to school without a glaring health spotlight or the prospect of strict requirements regarding face coverings, remote learning, desk placement and more.


Are schools back to normal, then, for the 2022-23 academic year?

Sure, we may want them to be, but if we're honest with ourselves -- and it's important that we are -- we know it's an uncertain and critical time for kids and schools alike. Although deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have declined, they still remain cause for concern. And, the illness has evolved into so many new and highly contagious mutations, we can feel constantly on edge, waiting in fear for some return to restrictions and remediations that so upended education since March 2020.

So it was tentatively reassuring to detect the emphasis on caution in the cautious optimism school officials expressed in the story about school preparations our Madhu Krishnamurthy provided on Sunday. In many ways, teachers and officials said, school this year will look a lot more like it did in 2019, but that doesn't mean the authorities are letting down their guard. Hand washing, sanitizing and testing will still be emphasized, and school personnel will be required to be vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus.

Perhaps most importantly, schools will be focusing less on counting every single outbreak than in watching for clusters and preparing to act if there's evidence of a new resurgence.

"We've had a very steep learning curve over the last two-plus years of all the things we need to do to reduce spread and mitigation strategies," Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, told Krishnamurthy. "We need to stay with it. If COVID is here to stay, then the prevention strategies need to be here to stay as well."

The school setting is a particularly important place to watch as we appear to enter a new phase of the pandemic -- not just because of the precious young people who could be at risk but also because of the implications for broader society if things get bad at school. The vigilance of school personnel will be critical, and they'll need cooperation and understanding from teachers, students, parents and all other elements of the school and health community.

If it all can be maintained, maybe the optimism with which the new academic year begins will be justified.

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