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Manheim Township high school students walk to the door after disembarking from their school buses on the first day of school on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

THE ISSUE

“Lancaster County has reached the ‘substantial’ level of community transmission of COVID-19, according to an update to the state’s weekly early monitoring dashboard,” LNP | LancasterOnline education reporter Alex Geli reported in Tuesday’s edition. But what that means for county schools remains unclear. “State education officials said schools can wait to see if Lancaster County remains at the ‘substantial’ level next week to decide whether they should shift to remote instruction,” Geli reported. But, even then, any shifts in instructional models would be up to local school boards.

In this year of unending stress and sorrow, one of the most challenging questions we have collectively faced is how to handle K-12 public schooling amid a deadly pandemic.

And here’s the horrible truth: There is no good answer.

None.

With every potential decision made by school boards and administrators regarding instructional models, there are risks, drawbacks and potential long-term negative outcomes.

This is true for in-person, hybrid or fully remote learning. All come with potential negative effects, whether they concern personal health risks or the possibility of at-risk learners falling far behind.

And so, before going further, we’d like to express our gratitude to those who are doing their very best — and surely losing sleep — over these impossible decisions that must nevertheless be made.

Their jobs aren’t getting easier.

Pennsylvania and the U.S. are entering the most grim stage yet of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of new cases per day in the United States has doubled in the past 20 days, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. CNN reported Thursday that the seven-day rolling average is 126,158 new cases per day, the highest level of the pandemic.

In Pennsylvania, 5,488 new cases and 49 more deaths were reported Thursday. More than 242,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus this year.

This surge is forcing schools and public health officials to make a new set of unenviable choices.

We certainly don’t have the answers, either, but we hope decision-makers heed the guidance of health experts as they move forward.

One example of how fraught and heated this debate can be is unfolding this week in Montgomery County, in suburban Philadelphia.

“After more than two hours of public comments — largely from angry parents adamant that schools should not be closed — the Montgomery County Board of Health on Thursday pushed back a vote on whether to shut down schools for two weeks,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The anger and frustration expressed by so many parents there is understandable.

“What you are proposing is causing irreparable damage,” said one parent in the Wissahickon School District, according to the Inquirer.

Indeed, the risks associated with remote learning are unsettling, as two public health experts wrote this week in an op-ed for The Washington Post:

“The severe harms of keeping kids out of school have been known for some time, such as loss in literacy, missed meals (including more than a billion this spring), virtual dropouts and increasing inequity — all of which hit low-income children the hardest because their parents often lack flexible work schedules to care for them at home.”

The Montgomery health board will meet again today to further consider whether to close all of the county’s K-12 schools for two weeks starting Nov. 23, the Inquirer reported.

In Lancaster County, where there is no county health agency, individual school districts continue to decide what is best for each of them.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends — does not mandate — that remote learning be used as the sole instructional model in counties where community transmission is “substantial,” according to LNP | LancasterOnline’s Geli.

If Lancaster County remains at that “substantial” level next week, the state recommendation should be seriously considered by all local school districts.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is also urging that schools follow the state guidance.

“The state departments of Health and Education developed these guidelines based on good science and what the infection rates are in a school’s community,” Rich Askey, the union’s president, said Wednesday. “We must follow these guidelines to the letter. It’s the best way for us to slow the spread of this virus and keep our students, staff, and their families safe.”

We hope that plea fully resonates with local school districts that have also been shaken by the COVID-19 death last week of 47-year-old Manheim Township School District guidance counselor Alexandra Chitwood.

There’s additional health expertise to consider. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab “is recommending that schools across the region revert to virtual programs,” the Inquirer reported in an article that also appeared on the front page of Thursday’s LNP | LancasterOnline.

Those officials were specifically referring to Philadelphia and its suburbs, including Delaware County, where the Inquirer separately noted that hospitals “in recent days became so inundated with COVID-19 cases that they are turning away ambulances.” But we know well that Lancaster County does not exist in a safe bubble. We are adjacent to the Philadelphia suburbs. And community transmission is surging in every county of Pennsylvania. Difficult COVID-19 decisions are on our doorstep, too.

Geli reported Thursday that Manheim Township School District secondary students (grades seven through 12) won’t return to in-person instruction until after Thanksgiving break. Other schools that temporarily shifted to online learning this week due to an increase in COVID-19 cases include Bart-Colerain Elementary School in Solanco, Elizabethtown Area High School, Elizabethtown Area Middle School, Garden Spot High School, Garden Spot Middle School, Fulton Elementary School in Lancaster and Warwick High School.

Deciding when those students should return to those classrooms will not be easy, especially if COVID-19 cases continue at their current levels or even further increase here. Other Lancaster County schools, meanwhile, have their own unenviable decisions ahead.

Again, those decisions must be guided by health experts.

We wish the very best to school officials, teachers, school workers, students and families as they continue to navigate this awful year.