It happens too often: When the truly hard decisions need to be made, a can tends to be kicked down a long stretch of asphalt, or a hot potato passed from one hand to another and then another.

State and federal education leaders poke their noses too much into classrooms, with standardized testing used as an overly simplistic tool to judge students, teachers and schools. That creates a mass of bureaucratic paperwork that undermines education and seems more political than educational. It’s a drag on the system, not a help.

But when true leadership from on high is needed, where are they? We are facing perhaps the biggest decision in U.S. education history — whether to start school in the middle of a pandemic.

And each school district is left to handle impossibly difficult questions of epidemiology and life/death risk as it relates to community spread.


What I see at the state and federal level is leaders basically saying, “Don’t blame me. Y’all decide. Whatever, it’s cool. You just decide. Leave us out of it.”

I feel like I’m also hearing in a whisper: “Yeah, y’all should probably not start back in the middle of all this, but we’re not going to take the hit, you are.”

Right now, passing responsibility to the next person is as infectious as coronavirus. So you end up with thousands of different strategies on one common problem.

But the countries that are getting back to normal are the ones that have acted in a cohesive manner with some firm leadership that says, “This is how we’re going to deal with it.” Since we can’t seem to do this, we risk falling far behind the rest of the world, not just in terms of the disease, but economically. How long are we going to bicker among ourselves and fail to get this under control? My guess is — a really long time. I don’t see any switch to flip that puts us all on the same page, suddenly able to act as one. We are a broken society in that way.

But we can still try to think of the big picture. Actually, we have to think that way, even without any shared American commitment.

For instance, when schools shut down in March, it was ostensibly for one major purpose — not to overwhelm the hospitals. Whatever you feel about coronavirus, whether you think it’s some conspiracy or overblown, or whatever, hospital capacity is a very real-world issue. We have two Athens hospitals serving multiple counties. Right now, there’s an increase in area hospitalizations for COVID-19. The local hospitals reported last week that they aren’t having capacity issues and that they can expand as needed. I hope that’s true. Of course, the scale of the problem will be the true determinant on that. And scale is still really hard to measure, especially as it relates to coming months.

Maintaining a functioning health care system must be the first consideration in any wide-scale health crisis. We don’t want to be in a situation in which sick people can’t get emergency care. That’s nightmarish.

Obviously, in-person school is infinitely better than the horrible experience of remote learning. The spring was terrible for students, parents and teachers. I was in the middle of that, too. It was bad! But the school systems were shut down for one primary objective: not to overwhelm our hospitals. And given the lack of direction from the state and federal governments, area school leaders must not lose sight of that first objective, which is logically outside of their job duties. But it’s been illogically placed in their laps, a can kicked down the road right at them. School administrators now have to think beyond school walls and about their community’s health, too. Their decisions have impact far beyond the classroom — economically, too, of course.

They must also make the hardest decisions with wrath looming. Start with virtual classes and there will be considerable rage from parents who feel this sickness is overblown and that their kids aren’t getting what they need. Start in-person classes and there’s a terrible gamble in it, where rage may be more pinpointed to a grieving family or families.

I don’t like kicking the can to others. So I’ll say this straight up: I don’t believe any schools should start in person in any community in which cases are rapidly surging. Cases should be on a decline, not a sharp incline. I think history will bear that out as the right opinion. I think it’s the wrong move in terms of public safety, which I think should hold the highest consideration. I don’t think the economic or the education considerations are going to get worked out until the public safety issue is significantly more under control. Those are simply one person’s opinions. I also recognize it’s the minority opinion in this part of the state.

But all that said, this call shouldn’t be on the local leaders! It’s an injustice in that way.

This should be decided at the federal and state levels for the good of society. This is the biggest abdication of responsibility I have ever witnessed. School boards, superintendents and administrators across the state and country have found themselves in the position of weighing scientific and political matters far beyond what should be asked of them.

But here we are — that can getting kicked, that hot potato getting passed. Right now, it’s the American way.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal, a sister newspaper of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at

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