As COVID-19 cases increase across the country, public and private schools are preparing to welcome students, teachers and staff back to campus.

Unfortunately, they are returning to the classroom during a very perilous and unstable time. The choice to physically open schools begs the question, “Are we treating our kids as canaries in the coal mines?”

In the early 19th and 20th centuries, miners took canaries in cages deep into the mines where they worked.

They did not simply take the birds into the mines to enjoy their song – even though that was a plus – but as a warning sign for pending danger.

When methane gas built up in the mines, which often happened, the frail birds would grow silent as they choked to death. The silence notified the miners that death was close at hand.

As children potentially return to school soon, I cannot help but think of those canaries in cages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that children are at a lower risk for contracting COVID-19, but as the virus mutates the future remains uncertain. Children are starting to contract the sickness.

If a child has any immune deficiencies, they are at a greater risk of longer-term consequences and death.

The CDC recommends the following steps to parents in protecting their children from contracting COVID-19: (1) Clean hands often, (2) Avoid sick people, (3) Place distance between children and other people, (4) Children over 2 should wear a mask, (5) Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces daily and (6) Launder clothes and toys.

President Donald Trump recently voiced his support for schools to reopen in the fall, regardless of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The president went even further, threatening to withhold federal funding from states not requiring local schools to reopen.

Without any credible scientific evidence, the president appeared to be more concerned about political ramifications leading to the November presidential election, Tweeting, “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”

The president’s remarks and mounting pressure from leaders – who, ironically, will not be in the classroom managing the potential “Superspreader” situation – leave many local school districts divided.

Many teachers, parents and students all want to return to school, but in such a way where the health and safety of students, teachers and staff is paramount.

Unfortunately, the president’s lack of leadership continues to make that a difficult task.

In Orange County, California, for example, the debate on returning to school during an increase in virus cases is heating up.

The Orange County Board of Education voted this week to reopen schools for all students, casting their decision as “an act of bravery.”

The vote, however, is not binding on districts, freeing each district to make its own decisions.

Two major issues emerge as the debate intensifies: (1) Should schools reopen at all in light of the increase of COVID-19 cases? and (2) Should students, teachers and staff be required to wear masks during school hours?

There are many other precautions, but many believe masks to be essential to reopening schools.

The United States reported a record-breaking number of cases this week, setting a single-day mark of 67,400 on Tuesday, July 14.

The trend appears to be increasing in many states like California, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Oklahoma.

With the death rate down in comparison to April, the number of infections deeply concerns medical officials.

In Texas, this week, hospitals report insufficient amounts of drugs, beds, ventilators and staff.

Many hospitals near Houston report they are dangerously close to running out of rooms, with some hospitals encouraging ambulance drivers to avoid bringing patients to the hospital.

As cases surge across the country, school districts continue weighing the risks of reopening schools.

When schools do make the decision about reopening, the debate switches to the number of precautions to enforce.

Unfortunately, wearing a mask to protect oneself and others from the spread of the virus became political, as politicians refused and mocked mask-wearers. This early reaction led many citizens to follow suit.

Mask-wearing has now become a wedge issue within many local school districts, dividing communities along political lines.

Instead of coming together to focus on community health and how best to educate children during a pandemic, citizens debate the constitutionality of a mask mandate.

As the school year grows closer, these debates will only intensify with the ebb and flow of reported cases.

What’s most troubling about this debate is the willingness of some to use children and schools as an experiment.

It seems, on so many levels, public schools are now used as an incubator for politicians’ bad ideas.

Whether it is rushing children back to school during a global pandemic with cases on the rise or ignoring sensible gun legislation that could prevent school shootings, politicians are more and more likely to use children as guinea pigs for their political experiments.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” If the United States is measured by how we treat our most vulnerable citizens – children – then we are failing. We must do better.

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Luke 19:14). As people of good faith, we need to be reminded of our responsibilities.

Everyone is eager to return to the classroom and reestablish a sense of normalcy, but at what expense?

The school systems are filled with wise and intelligent people who can use their creativity to find a way forward during this difficult time.

One truth will be for certain this fall, classrooms will look and feel very different. However, whenever schools are reopened, may they do so with the best interests of children, teachers and staff in mind.

Reopening schools safely can be both safe and productive for everyone involved if only wisdom and caution prevail over political interests.

My prayer for local school leaders will remain consistent. May God grant them wisdom, caution and creativity as they make decisions concerning the most valuable commodity we possess, our children.

May we never be found guilty of treating our children as canaries in cages because they sing the songs of our future.

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