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EDITORIAL: If teachers get to cut to the front of the vaccine line, they must return to the classroom

At its last board meeting, Clark County School District trustees agreed to allow some students back into school buildings to address academic and mental health concerns. There’s an obvious need for that. But there remains no real timeline for returning children to the classroom for in-person instruction.

This is a scandal, as more and more children fall further behind because of the shortcomings of remote instruction, which now threatens to drag on in Southern Nevada for more than a full academic year.

“Keeping students home is unnecessary,” Nina Schawlbe wrote for The Atlantic in October. “Reopening schools doesn’t appear to meaningfully increase the level of risk faced by teachers or students, but closing them causes well-documented damage to students. Evidence from around the world … shows not only that many schools should remain open, but that officials should take more steps to open up classrooms.”

Yet the trustees seem to be in no hurry. Meanwhile, the percentage of students receiving an F during the first semester more than doubled compared with last year. It’s not hyperbole to note that closed school buildings have diminished the futures of tens of thousands of children. Literacy among early elementary students has decreased. That sets children on a path that makes them less likely to graduate high school. Adults who don’t receive diplomas have lower wages, are more likely to end up in prison and die younger.

The district’s laid-back approach lacks the urgency this situation demands. Superintendent Jesus Jara has largely left what this initial baby step approved last week will look like — it’s far from a return to in-person teaching — up to school principals. There’s some wisdom in not micromanaging. The students needing the most help at each school will differ. This also allows especially enterprising principals to show that reopening schools can be done safely.

It’s worth noting that while the stakes couldn’t be higher for students, the pandemic isn’t a pressing crisis for many adults in the system. Despite school buildings being closed for almost a year, “there have been no layoffs” because of distance learning, district spokeswoman Melinda Malone said in an email. That hardly seems realistic given that students haven’t been in classrooms since March.

Meanwhile, teachers and other education personnel — a large number of whom are healthy young adults — are now at the front of the line for COVID vaccinations while many vulnerable seniors struggle to get inoculations. The data simply doesn’t justify this. Those in their 20s and 30s have a 99.92 percent or better chance of surviving after receiving a positive COVID test. Among those older than 70, the survival rate is under 90 percent, according to Nevada’s coronavirus data.

Front-loading teachers makes no sense other than from a carrot-and-stick perspective, but that’s a poor way to ethically establish vaccination priorities, particularly when there’s no guarantee educators will be back in the classroom in time to do anything more than close up for summer break.

There are many district employees who are desperate to return to class. There can also be accommodations made for educators or parents who remain uncomfortable with the concept.

“Keeping schools closed causes countless children to fall behind,” Ms. Schwalbe noted in The Atlantic. “Numerous studies demonstrate the negative effects of being out of school for younger and older children — including a widened achievement gap, mental-health issues, increases in violence and abuse and even early pregnancies.”

The Clark County School District is already plagued by substandard test scores and various achievement gaps. Continued dawdling exacerbates an already untenable situation and must no longer be an option.

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