Back-to-school challenge will test our patience

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”

— Helen Keller

Administrators with the Public Schools of Robeson County and the Board of Education huddled on Thursday during a special meeting that was emotionally charged to try to figure out a path forward in returning about 24,000 students to their classrooms following Hurricane Matthew.

What was quickly apparent is there is no quick fix, although it was suggested that some students — not all — could return to class late this week for the first time since Oct. 7.

The system is facing multiple roadblocks — all schools must be tested for air quality, a tedious process that has begun; while not all schools have severe damage, some were flooded and made a mess that must be cleaned up; one, West Lumberton Elementary, suffered the worst of the flooding and will be closed for a long while, meaning students will probably attend classes in a mobile unit; food that has spoiled in freezers must be discarded and restocked; and with more than 100 roads in the county still closed, bus routes have to be examined and alternate routes, where needed, determined.

Complicating all of that is that the system’s central office was flooded, meaning administrators will have to figure all of this out in a temporary location, once that can be secured.

And there is a clock ticking: North Carolina law requires that students attend a minimum of 185 days of school or receive at least 1,025 hours of instruction. Robeson County students have missed 10 days of class, and three more are canceled for this week, so there is an urgency in getting schools reopened.

Gov. Pat McCrory last week said the General Assembly, when it reconvenes in January, will most likely modify the minimum thresholds for the current school year, but even if that happens, Robeson County students, who trail their peers across the state in most educational metrics, can ill afford lost time in the classroom. It seems obvious that our students, when they get back in school, will be facing some combination or all of the following: extended school days, Saturdays in class, and a school year that plods deeper into the summer.

We see no other options.

This newspaper has not been reluctant to criticize our Board of Education, but we were impressed by what we saw on Thursday night. It was clear that board members were agonizing over what has occurred, and were uniting in an effort to restore normalcy. And after that night, no one should question Superintendent Tommy Lowry’s commitment to providing the best educational opportunities to the students and parents served by the system.

The school system now perhaps more than ever is in need of genuine leadership — and Thursday’s performance gives us hope that it will be provided. But even so, the next few months are going to be challenging for all, school administrators, the school board, parents and students.

Patience will be our sharpest tool.

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