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Editorial: Will virus change context for school closures?

Rowan-Salisbury Schools has rightly been focused on many other important items in recent months rather than closures and consolidation.

Among other things, there’s teaching students who are no longer in the classroom, providing support for educators to continue teaching, feeding youngsters whether they’re in public schools or not and celebrating graduates through an in-person ceremony (something that’s still on the to-do list).

Whether to close or consolidate schools and build new ones, though, remains on the back-burner. Students aren’t in buildings right now. So, it’s not a priority.

But for the next few years context for that debate will look a lot different.

It’s hard to imagine school continuing to teach students from home effectively. There will just be too many in danger of being left behind because of structural barriers they face. Whether it’s this fall or some later date, classes will eventually return to school buildings.

But just as there is still much unknown about the coronavirus that’s spawned a nationwide pandemic, it’s anyone’s guess about what that return will look like. A few days of the week in the building and the other two at home? Spacing students out further to minimize the chance of the virus’ spread?

For now, it seems likely Rowan County commissioners will agree with County Manager Aaron Church’s recommendation to halt any new school construction for a year. That means pressing pause on a combined Knox Middle-Overton Elementary.

But it also means more careful analysis of the goal the school system will want to achieve through consolidation and closures.

To help prevent the virus’ spread, perhaps there’s heightened value in smaller neighborhood schools with a few hundred students as opposed to several hundred. Particularly without a vaccine, it seems unwise to consolidate schools at the moment. The school board may see value in rebuilding Faith Elementary School, for example, and creating a more energy-efficient building that cuts down on repair costs.

The Salisbury Post Editorial Board and members of the school administration have previously advocated for being decisive and adopting a sense of urgency in decision-making rather than dawdling further with debates. But our current global pandemic has changed many thought processes. Maybe there’s a shift in thinking needed about school buildings, too.

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