By Tim Hayes

In the classic TV series “MASH,” the veteran surgeons stationed three miles from the front during the Korean War tried to convince their new “cutter,” Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, to get his butt moving a little faster in the O.R.

Accepting wounded soldiers so close to the fighting meant practicing “meatball surgery” – stitching them up and getting them stabilized only to the degree that they could get to another medical facility with more equipment and more time to spend. Winchester, however, had other ideas.

“Gentlemen,” he declared, “I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.”

In time, the major caught on and contributed as well to the 4077th MASH and its patients as did Hawkeye and the other meatball surgeons. But that line about doing “one thing very well” always seemed to stick with me – and never more so than over the past couple of weeks, as school districts nationwide wrestle with the seemingly no-win question of how to begin the academic year during a raging pandemic.

COVID-19 should have been kicked to the curb last spring. We stayed indoors. We suspended commerce where needed. We had begun to flatten the curve. Then summer began, and too many Americans went completely out of their minds.

Two months of cabin fever turned out to be far too great a sacrifice, and starting with Memorial Day, ratcheting up higher on the long Independence Day weekend, and careening out of control ever since, people in this country have gone so far off the deep end that the cost in infections and deaths from the virus has surpassed anyone’s worst fears.

It reminds me of a young person, growing up in a strict household, who goes away to college and makes up for lost time with alcohol, drugs, sex, and anything but the real reason to be there – to pay attention and get the work done. A little bit of freedom gets taken way too far, and there’s a price to be paid eventually.

Yeah, well, so far 150,000 Americans have paid the price for their fellow citizens acting selfishly and irresponsibly by flaunting the easily followed guidelines or berating the pandemic as some sort of conspiratorial hoax. Good God, people. Seriously?

So if science and logic tell us that bringing groups of people together indoors represents the greatest risk of transmitting and spreading this incredibly highly contagious and dangerous respiratory disease – the reason for the self quarantines and closing of bars and restaurants in the first place – then how can we possibly be considering opening up schools in a few weeks?

I certainly don’t envy school district administrators and school boards right now. Parents would prefer to have their children back in the classroom, of course. Teachers would love for that to happen, too. But even with breaking up schedules so that fewer students report to their school buildings at any given time – even with installing Plexiglas dividers everywhere – even with the faint hope that kids (especially in elementary school) would keep a face mask on all day – outbreaks are still guaranteed to happen. And then what?

Look at Major League Baseball. A league with billions of dollars supporting it. MLB made concessions, shortening the schedule, playing before empty stadiums, testing its players and coaches every other day. Well, guess what? COVID-19 still has knocked a number of teams on their ass. These are professional athletes who pay close attention to anything affecting their bodies and their health. You honestly think a bunch of little kids could do any better?

God bless educational leaders trying to offer multiple options to families. Split classroom rosters, smaller class sizes, mixing in-person and online instruction, gearing up staff and procedures to sanitize entire buildings daily – it’s an unbelievable effort. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked? Does anyone think it can?

Why are we willingly plunging headlong into the educational equivalent of meatball surgery – stitching plans together just well enough to temporarily get by?

Even with all of these plans and precautions, within two weeks of classes starting, the whole stack of barely teetering dominoes most likely will collapse into a heap anyway. Entire classes, entire busloads, entire buildings being quarantined for weeks – only to return and have the same thing happen all over again.

Here’s where Winchester’s line from “MASH” kicks in. Instead of trying to play “Beat the Clock” and rushing to set up a system that clearly needs more time to be done with better data, better training, and better guidance – why don’t we give our schools and their leaders that time, to have a better chance at success?

Why don’t we do “one thing very well” and go to 100% online learning for the first nine-week grading period?

Spend the time between now and the start of school training teachers well, giving them the equipment and the tools they need to maximize the instructional experience for their students. In the meantime, administrators could more carefully and expertly prepare classroom buildings for the return of students in person in late October. Perhaps by then, the infection rates will have come down, as well.

For our kids’ sake, for our teachers’ sake, for our society’s sake, let’s do one thing, let’s do it very well, and then let’s move on. Go to exceptional online learning for the first nine weeks of the school year.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes