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A chalk message on a sidewalk. “We need teachers for our kids.”
A parent scrawled a plea for instructors on the sidewalk in front of her home in Northbrook in early April. Many parents are eager to send their kids to school this fall.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

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Hope alone is not a success strategy

The Archdiocese of Chicago plans to open Catholic schools for in-class education this fall. Is that wise?

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 head-slapping 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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