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The coronavirus won’t disappear, so our schools must reopen

In one ear, the trembling voice of a teacher says she’s terrified to return to the classroom. In the other, an exhausted mother of two young children tells me she’s praying her kids can go back to school.

In the New York Times, teacher Rebecca Martinson writes that she won’t risk her life to teach other people’s kids. In the Atlantic, nurse Kristen McConnell, who is married to a teacher, argues that teachers are essential workers just like she is — and they should step up to the plate.

These are all real people, who are doing their best to cope with the deeply altered world in which we now live. Each has a legitimate perspective that’s probably shared by millions of others. To be honest, I’d be afraid to teach in today’s classroom, though I felt that way before the virus. I’d also be deeply reluctant to send my own children into the petri dish of any school right now. Parents quickly learn that children bring home whatever they catch at school. And, though the very young typically become less ill than adults with this coronavirus, they’re still messy little love bugs whose hugs and kisses aren’t easily denied.

Teachers also didn’t sign up for health risks in the way medical people have. But, then, neither did grocery store clerks, warehouse workers or bus drivers. Still, should teachers be expected to join the front lines in this particular war? Admittedly, at no personal risk, I’m inclined to say, you bet.

Children need to be in school; parents need to return to work; the world needs to keep turning. Although infection rates are still surging in some places, they’re declining in others. The ever-cautious Anthony Fauci said Thursday that children should return to school, but that policies should reflect local circumstances. What works in Vermont, which has a testing-positivity rate of 0.6%, seems unwise in Mississippi, where rates are 20.9%. Plans that combine classroom attendance with home schooling may be workable in some places and not in others. On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cleared the way for schools to reopen because of the state’s 1% infection rate.

What’s clear is that Normal isn’t coming back. With or without a vaccine, COVID-19 is here to stay, probably indefinitely, according to a growing consensus of scientists. Management of this virus is the destination now. As doctors improve treatments — and people embrace best practices, wearing a mask and avoiding close encounters — we’re likely to see fewer cases of less severity. And a vaccine, once approved, will begin to make COVID-19 less widespread or horrifying. But it won’t make it go away entirely. That’s the new reality.

Exceptions to this somewhat brighter scenario will continue to include people with pre-existing conditions and the elderly, who are more vulnerable to grave illness and/or death. This is sad and hard for those affected, but perfection is never an option.

The truth is we’ve reached a point where everyone needs to be an essential worker — for the sake of the economy, for everyone’s psychological well-being, for peace, for unity and sanity. We all need to refuel, while remaining vigilant, thoughtful and careful. This isn’t a political statement, even if Republicans are pushing school and Democrats, reacting to teacher unions, are leaning the other way. Just an obvious and neutral observation.

Alas, politics both drives and undermines the discussion we should be having about what all Americans can do to play their part. It isn’t enough that some people wear a mask most of the time, if others never cover their mouth and nose — or continue to gather as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed. We must adapt.

One other plea: If ever there were a time to think beyond oneself, it’s now. I feel like dusting off my pom-poms and shouting, “We can do this!” But I really wish someone else would do it — like the president or maybe, maybe that guy running against him, please? He could speak in the spirit of longed-for bipartisanship about how there’s nothing we can’t do, including doing two things at once: managing the virus and safely rebuilding the economy by sending younger, healthy and COVID-recovered Americans back to work, encouraging the elderly and compromised to stay home, and getting children back to school, as Fauci prescribed.

Come on, Joe. You can do this.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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