EDITORIAL: Decision to End School Year Prudent But Premature

Today, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois schools closed to in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year, considerably extending a closure that has already lasted a full month. This step was perhaps inevitable, but we are a bit disappointed by the decision. Not because we strongly believe schools should re-open, but because we wish the state would at least wait and see what conditions are in May before making a definitive decision. 

Chicago Public Schools, the state’s largest school district (which includes Payton), is scheduled to be in session until June 18 — more than two months from today. We are skeptical that it is necessary to completely rule out the possibility of returning to school. 

We understand the urge to be extremely cautious. Were schools to re-open and lead to a resurgence of the virus, the blame would fall squarely at the governor’s feet. He understandably does not want to run the risk of being responsible for more deaths. 

To his credit, the governor carefully noted that he was aware of the many challenges this decision would create, for parents, teachers, and students. “This was not a decision that I made lightly,” Pritzker said at his Friday afternoon press briefing. “The science says our students can’t go back to their normal routine,” he added.

But there are middle-ground options that involve students going back to school with special restrictions — cancellation of assemblies and ceremonies, mandatory mask-wearing, and so on. The choice is not necessarily between going back to our normal routine and staying at home. 

For many students, merely maintaining the hope that school would return might well have been the only thing keeping them optimistic in these difficult times, a light at the end of the tunnel. Now the light is gone. 

To be sure, it is hard to deny that returning to school this spring seemed unlikely to prove prudent, even if the governor were to wait until May to make a final decision. As Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike explained Friday, Illinois does not appear to have reached its coronavirus “peak” yet. Even the somewhat optimistic national re-opening plan released by the federal government Thursday recommends that schools remain closed during Phase One of the staged re-opening. Even under the best scenarios, it is hard to imagine that school could resume before mid- to late-May, at the very earliest.

One of the reasons often given for making big decisions earlier, rather than later, is that knowing with certainty what the future holds helps people plan in advance. Perhaps parents, teachers, and students will appreciate knowing for certain what the rest of this school year will look like. Maybe students will take online learning more seriously, knowing it is all the education they will get for the next two months. We will soon see.

But, as Pritzker recognized, there is undeniably something lost today. Graduating 8th graders and high school seniors, preparing to move on to high school or college, will not get closure on their time in school. Students who live in difficult home environments will find no refuge until the fall. And though teachers have valiantly tried to make the best of online distance education, it seems virtually certain that student learning will be hampered severely.  

The Paw Print appreciates Governor Pritzker’s decisive action over the last several weeks. His move today may well have ultimately been the least bad option. But was there really any harm in waiting? 

Image courtesy of the CDC

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