If reopening restaurants and retail businesses seems like a chore, wait until next fall. That’s when the country’s more than 50 million school children, including about 182,000 in Maine, will likely return to brick-and-mortar schools.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Schools appear to present the right conditions for spreading the novel coronavirus, and students may be returning just when an expected fall resurgence begins.

But keeping kids home could be just as harmful, if not more.

All students regress some over the long summer break, and most experts agree that the slide is particularly bad for low-income students. Each year, some students return to school a little bit further behind their peers.

During the important foundational early years of learning, to the most vulnerable students, the cost of missing school is enormous. Even skeptics of the so-called “summer slide” agree that what students face now could be devastating to an entire generation of young students. Out of school since March, they have experienced the equivalent a summer off before the summer even begins.

True, most districts have kept up lessons through distance learning. But even if low-income students weren’t struggling to participate at the same level as their peers, distance learning cannot be expected to replicate in-person school.

Collectively, the student population that returns to school in September will be much different than the one that left in March. All students are going to be behind. But because not all students have been engaged at the same level, the gap between the top and bottom tiers of students will be wider, a huge challenge for educators.

Those students will have also missed time with their classmates and friends. For the youngest students especially, it has been traumatic, and it has no doubt stunted their social development.

And school is often a respite for students with problems at home. Many of these homes are now experiencing additional financial stress. Without school these past months, students have been home around the clock, soaking in stress. For students struggling with mental health, too, the outbreak has taken away their support systems and routines.

Schools must be ready to deal with the aftereffects of grief, trauma and disconnection on a scale they’ve never had to.

And opening schools is imperative for parents to be able to work as well.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Each day, schools bring in people from throughout the community, not only students but staff and teachers too, many of whom are in the age groups most vulnerable to the coronavirus. They remain in tight quarters all day, talking and otherwise interacting, before heading back home, where they do the same with their families.

Measures for physical distancing sound expensive and logistically difficult — staggered bus times, lower student-to-teacher ratios, sufficient cleaning. When they do reopen, it’s unclear when new COVID-19 cases would trigger another round of closures.

Meanwhile, state budgets are falling apart, and schools don’t know just how that will affect them.

Schools can’t do this on their own. They’ll need strong leadership from the Maine Department of Education, with clear guidelines based on the best available information.

Maybe the conditions by the fall won’t be so bad. Maybe we’ll have a better handle on how the virus works. Maybe it’ll turn out that schools aren’t the potential hotspots they seem to be.

But chances are, schools will be reopening at a crucial time in the outbreak. We’ve got to be ready to meet that challenge.


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