It didn’t seem right that schools and parents are somehow expected to shoulder the staggering responsibility of deciding whether to return kids to the classroom amid a raging, unpredictable pandemic. 

Is it safe to repopulate schools? How do we know?

State and federal health agencies have churned out back-to-school guidelines that failed to address those fundamental questions. 

It’s become clear that schools, first of all, should reopen only when community spread of coronavirus is in check. The country at large is not even close to the mark.

Second, there are easy-to-understand measures to determine whether community spread is under control.

Third, the framework puts responsibility for reopening schools where it belongs — on elected leaders, health officials and the public to bring cases under control.

Epidemiologist Dr. Ali Khan and colleagues at the University of Nebraska recently published guidance that includes a color-coded scale of risk levels for schools. The guidelines recommend schools start the year with remote learning in areas averaging more than five new cases a day per 100,000 population. Anything above five would indicate uncontrolled spread that endangers students and staff.

As I write this, Ohio is averaging more than 11 new cases a day per 100,000 population. Nine states are averaging 30 or more. 

Dr. Khan told me the surge of cases across the country is an unprecedented public health failure that asserts undue pressure on schools.

The burden should not be on schools or parents to make life and death choices around a contagious virus that we have no experience managing in a school setting. Other countries understand this. These countries were able to knock down infection rates with tough control measures like shutdowns and universal mask wearing. That’s the only way to bring case numbers down to safe levels for schools to reopen, experts wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine last week.

Schools have spent months on logistical considerations, prevention and mitigation efforts, but they can only go so far. 

“These efforts are not going to prevent school-based transmission if you don’t get cases down in the community,” Dr. Khan said.

More schools are seeing the light and deciding to begin the year with all remote learning. Where I live In Northeast Ohio, public health agencies are starting to take a stand as well. A public health officer for my county told me in late July her agency was not advising schools on whether to reopen. Two days later, the agency was recommending schools start remotely and cancel extracurricular activities. It cited a tripling of average daily cases between mid-June and mid-July; increasing hospitalizations and limited capacity to test children for COVID-19.

The country failed its children. The failure keeps parents up at night, worrying about their kids’ education and well-being; day care issues, jobs, the economy and family health. 

Mr. Spector is a guest columnist for Ohio Capital Journal

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