I don't see how schools can reopen later this summer.

But I also don't see how they can stay closed.

What to do about schools, from kindergarten to college, is one of the most vexing issues that surrounds the COVID virus outbreak.

And it isn't just about education. Schools have become multidimensional institutions that provide a variety of health and social services to children, in addition to traditional classroom instruction.

A number of children depend on public schools to eat a decent meal each day.

Health care services — physical, mental and emotional — are closely linked to children attending school.

Life skills and socialization are a huge part of a school's influence on children.

And schools act, in part, as a safe "home" for many younger children who are too young to be by themselves and as a safe place for children who otherwise live in questionable, unstable, perhaps abusive environments.

So when schools aren't in session, the impact isn't just on academics, it also has an impact on the "whole" child and by extension, their families and the community at-large.

•••

But for all that value, schools are also closed environments where contagions often run rampant. No matter how hard they try, schools simply cannot practice any real degree of "social distancing" inside a school building. It's a pipe dream to think otherwise.

Colleges are even worse. Although students are older, crowded dorms and nights of partying will surely spread COVID among the young adult population in college communities. It's already happening around the country.

Although doctors still don't understand a lot about COVID, it's becoming clear that its main way of spreading is from airborne particles. Simply talking spreads the virus.

So schools, with large numbers of people coming in and out every day into a closed system, are perfect petri dishes to incubate and spread the virus.

While the virus hasn't been as deadly on younger children as it is on older people,  having a lot of young children as carriers will undoubtedly lead to an uptick in overall community spread. That will mean more sick adults and more deaths overall.

And the impact on teachers? If I were an older teacher, I wouldn't want to be in that kind of virus hothouse.

•••

So the question is, how much pain are we willing to take in order to have schools and our society return to some semblance of "normal?'

If we don't have kids back in school, that will affect many adults' ability to work. Not every adult can work remotely.

And if we don't have kids back in school, the children themselves will suffer. Some doctors believe that there is more overall danger for children if they don't go to school than if they do.

There is also a danger to the economy and to society. So far, the downturn in the economy has been softened by a massive amount of money being poured into people's bank accounts by the government. That is slated to end later this month, but given the upcoming election, the free money may be extended until November.

But it won't last forever. At some point, the free funds will stop and at that point, the economy could be in deep trouble.

•••

This question about what to do about school reopening is playing out against a backdrop of what looks like a perfect storm.

With an election looming, the virus has become the most important political issue on the table.

In an effort to shore up lagging poll numbers, President Trump is dismissing the virus and has begun attacking doctors who don't project a positive attitude.

But that has created a split within the GOP as some Republicans have begun to distance themselves from the president and his failure to deal with the COVID crisis.

The virus could eat away at Trump's political Teflon. No other issue has, so far, weakened him politically. And while the diehard members of the Trump Cult will support him no matter what, a lot of moderate Republican voters are starting to question his insane rhetoric about the virus pandemic.

Regardless, the federal government is AWOL on how to deal with school openings and a coherent virus response. It's all political, the consequences be damned.

•••

One of the dumber issues to come from all this has been that wearing a face mask is now itself a political issue. Some on the right claim mask mandates are an infringement of their "freedom."

They're not.

That was the same argument we heard in the 1970s when a lot of people opposed seatbelt mandates because they were thought to be an infringement of personal "rights." You don't hear that anymore.

Look, we have to wear clothes in public. Nobody claims that being forced to wear pants is an infringement of their "rights" as citizens.

Mask mandates aren't an infringement, either. While mask mandates are difficult to enforce, they do carry some weight with the public.

And if the state won't mandate mask-wearing in public, every business in the state should do it on their own.

You want to buy groceries? Wear a mask.

That should be mandatory. Period.

•••

All of which brings us back to public schools. If schools in Georgia are going to reopen, wearing masks should be mandatory. For students. For teachers. For anyone inside a school building.

So far, none of the three schools systems in Jackson County are mandating mask-wearing, although they are encouraging it. Nearby, Gwinnett County is mandating masks in schools.

So should all the schools in Jackson County. While it would be a pain to enforce, and to deal with nutty parents who would cause trouble over mask mandates, it's the only reasonable thing to do if schools are going to reopen.

And it's a proactive thing to do. Why wait until a child or a teacher gets critically ill, then decide wearing a mask should be mandatory — why not do everything possible in advance to slow the virus' spread and to protect as many people as possible?

Mandating mask-wearing isn't a magic bullet, of course, but it's better than not doing it. Those who don't want to follow the rules can stay home and participate in remote learning without a mask.

If this virus were killing kids at the same rate it does older adults, you better believe every school system in the nation would mandate masks.

•••

We're not sure how all of this will play out. But this pandemic isn't going away anytime soon. It may be years before we see some kind of effective treatment, or vaccine.

Meanwhile, COVID will continue to reshape our society, our economy and out political culture.

And until we figure it all out, let's all do our part and wear a mask, including mandating masks in our public schools.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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