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School guidelines still a work in progress

There is good news and bad news in the Oregon Department of Education’s new guidelines for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. The good news: all children from kindergarten on up will be required to wear face coverings while attending school. The bad news is the reason for that increased requirement: cases of COVID-19 are continuing to increase faster than public health officials would like.

It’s important to remember that these are guidelines, and that local school districts will make their own decisions about bringing children back into the classroom this fall. Ultimately, parents will make the final decision for their children.

In Medford, where school officials have outlined the most detailed local proposals so far, the first day of school would be pushed back a week, to Sept. 8. That’s more than six weeks away, leaving plenty of time to monitor the pandemic and change plans as needed.

If the number of cases continues to climb as it has been doing since Jackson County entered phase two reopening, it’s hard to see how returning children to classrooms would make sense. If, on the other hand, enough people cooperate with Gov. Kate Brown’s new mandates also announced Wednesday, and the growth in new cases slows, it’s possible some students could resume in-person learning in September.

It’s also important to understand that the school plans are voluntary. Parents are not obligated to send their children back to school if they do not feel safe in doing so. In fact, Medford school officials are urging parents to sign up now if they want online-only instruction for the new school year. That will allow the district to better plan for the new year and allocate resources where they will be most needed.

If large numbers of students stay away from classrooms this fall, it will be that much easier for school officials to provide the social distancing recommended to prevent infections among the students who do return. Because the unfortunate reality is, some parents may not have a choice. Single parents and those with jobs that don’t allow them to be home with their kids may be forced to choose between sending them to school and paying the rent.

That’s not a situation anyone wants, but it is the reality facing many families.

All the more reason for everyone to take the restrictions seriously. The longer people resist the simple measures of wearing masks, social distancing and limiting group gatherings, the longer the restrictions will continue and the greater the likelihood that even more restrictions could be imposed.

Other countries in the world have successfully reopened schools and restarted their economies. That’s because their residents did what was asked of them and slowed the spread of the virus to manageable levels. Too many Americans have emphatically refused, invoking “rights” they believe are being violated by common-sense public health measures.

Oregon has done a better job than most, but we are not immune to this stubborn denial of reality. On Thursday, a conservative nonprofit group sued to block Brown’s face mask order, arguing state officials moved too fast and suggesting the order violated constitutional rights. One of the three plaintiffs says the mask order forces him to show political support for the governor’s orders.

That is nonsense, to put it mildly. This is not about politics. It’s about public health.