Best wishes alone won’t make school re­open­ings suc­ceed

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­times.com | @NeilStein­berg

Two ques­tions. First, re­gard­ing Le­banese of­fi­cials who ig­nored warn­ings about the 2,750 tons of am­mo­nium ni­trate stored in a ware­house in Beirut: Was it smart to do noth­ing?

Were they right to just leave the explosives sit­ting there? Con­sid­er­ing the bother of dis­pos­ing of 5 mil­lion pounds of fer­til­izer. The cost. And when you’ve gone to all the trou­ble, what would you have to show for it? An un­blown-up city. The same thing they started with.

In­ac­tion worked, for a while. For six years, noth­ing blew up.

Given that, would do­ing some­thing have been worth it? I’d say yes, but then I am a cau­tious sort, by na­ture. Cope with explosives be­fore they blow up, that’s my motto. To the sec­ond ques­tion:

The Arch­dio­cese of Chicago is send­ing 70,000 Catholic stu­dents back to school this fall, to in-per­son classes, in the face of the rag­ing COVID-19 epi­demic: Is that a good idea?

Maybe it is. New York City, the largest school dis­trict in the na­tion, seems to think so. Like dis­pos­ing of explosives, keep­ing kids at home is dif­fi­cult, on both par­ents and chil­dren. The former have to care for the lat­ter, or pay for them to be cared for, or leave them un­su­per­vised. Ed­u­ca­tion suf­fers.

It could work. Keep­ing kids in co­horts is smart — rather than chang­ing classes and mob­bing the halls, each class­room will be its own unit. Every­body will wear masks, in the­ory, and when peo­ple get sick — as they in­evitably will — they’ll go into quar­an­tine.

The virus, which isn’t un­der con­trol any­where, might de­fer to the au­thor­ity of the Catholic Church and avoid its class­rooms. The fa­mous ruler-to-the-back-of-the-hand Catholic school dis­ci­pline could keep those masks where they be­long.

Or is open­ing the schools a mis­take? A let’s-hope-the-stuff-doesn’t-ex­plode er­ror? Some­thing that in ret­ro­spect will be a head­slap­ping blun­der: You just left the explosives there? You mean you opened the schools any­way?

It’s not like we’re build­ing upon a solid foun­da­tion of suc­cess here. Sum­mer camps across the coun­try tried to open then closed as sick­ness spread through their campers.

Ma­jor league base­ball is no trea­sure map ei­ther. Two weeks into the sea­son, play­ers are fall­ing like flies. Half the ros­ter of the Florida Mar­lins got sick. Games are be­ing scrubbed. So if pro­fes­sional ballplay­ers with lu­cra­tive ca­reers on the line can’t stick with the pro­gram, how are a bunch of sec­ond graders sup­posed to?

Nearly 100,000 chil­dren tested pos­i­tive the last two weeks of July — that’s with­out school — and 25 died dur­ing the month. Is 25 a lot? Too many?

Not to cast shade on the arch­dio­cese. When I was writ­ing our big Easter story, I got the car­di­nal on the tele­phone, and he ra­di­ated not just in­tel­li­gence but hon­est con­cern. So I ask this with all due rev­er­ence and re­spect. If mere good­will would make the thing work, then my best re­gards cou­pled with the fond­est wishes of thou­sands of Chicago par­ents will glide the en­deavor to­ward suc­cess.

But we have 160,000 Amer­i­can dead be­tween the end of March and now, with in­formed opin­ion has them joined by an­other 160,000 dead — a thou­sand times the toll in Beirut — by Christ­mas.

How many will be Catholic school teach­ers, par­ents, kids? What’s the ac­cept­able num­ber? I can only speak for my­self: I wouldn’t teach, wouldn’t send my chil­dren.

Though to be fair, kids are usu­ally vec­tors — it isn’t that they’ll be dy­ing, though that is pos­si­ble. But they’ll be bring­ing the dis­ease home to their par­ents and grand­par­ents, who will then die. When that process starts, as it must, in the same way am­mo­nium ni­trate even­tu­ally blows up, how will this de­ci­sion be seen?

Be­fore the arch­dio­cese even made its an­nounce­ment, I was think­ing of Catholic schools. You see folks wear­ing masks down across their chins.

That made me think of, when I was grow­ing up in Berea, Ohio, the boys at St. Mary’s would wear their ties with the knots slid down to their di­aphragms. Tech­ni­cally fol­low­ing the rules and wear­ing a tie. But also flout­ing those rules, in­ject­ing a lit­tle re­bel­lion. That doesn’t work with masks.

Ret­ro­spect is a beau­ti­ful thing and points to what Beirut should have done. Acting be­fore­hand is the true chal­lenge. I hope the Catholic schools pull off in-per­son ed­u­ca­tion with­out ex­tract­ing too high a toll. But if we’ve learned noth­ing else, hope alone is not a suc­cess strat­egy.

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