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With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, schools have a complex challenge in preparing to open for the 2020-21 academic year.

The health, safety and education of students should be the guiding priorities. Also, school officials will have to figure out how to work within their budgets despite additional health-related expenses.

Providing a good education was difficult enough for local schools, which have had to deal with shifting state standards and the growing need for social services among students while trying to keep pace with new technology.

Educators had to make an even more dramatic adjustment in March after the pandemic first hit Madison County. They closed their doors, sending students home for eLearning to keep the coronavirus from spreading like wildfire in crowded buildings.

While distance education has value, nothing fully substitutes for the in-person education of a traditional classroom. In that environment, students readily learn not only academic material but also social skills and teamwork. Teachers, too, learn more about their students and connect with them better in person.

So, Madison County area schools are doing the right thing by developing plans to return students to the classroom for the fall semester.

The state of Indiana has provided detailed guidance in a document — Indiana’s Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools: COVID-19 Health and Safety Re-entry Guidance — released in early June.

But each individual school district will likely have to make difficult specific decisions related to bus transportation, requirements for masks, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting and use of shared materials.

In the end, the right formula for education in the first semester of the 2020-21 school year will likely be a combination of in-school classroom work and distance learning.

School officials will have to be adaptable, going to plan B (or C, or D ...) if there’s a coronavirus surge and as new information about the virus and related symptoms emerge.

Parents and students, too, will have to be fully committed to following health and safety precautions. And they might have to adapt to changing plans as the school year unfolds.

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