As autumn plucks the leaves from the trees, school superintendents wince. They do so not because they necessarily hate yard work but because of what it portends, the coming of winter and the need to make weather calls. This year, for many, the wince becomes a deep, profound sigh. Just one more thing to fret over during the year of the pandemic.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’ve had to make so many different calls and cancellations, that the possibility of a few more seems trivial, like the single red maple leaf that blows into your yard when you’re already knee deep in the raking. One more won’t matter, after all.

Thus, when I met recently with a group of South Dakota superintendents, even though we all knew what was on the horizon meteorologically, no one brought up the quickly descending gloom of snow and ice. What they did bring up ... and bring up ... and bring up … was the daily need to make decisions about events during the COVID-19 pandemic, things like parent-teacher conferences, music concerts, athletic events, and so many more. The saving grace of a weather call is that, usually, you make it and then you enjoy a respite of a few days or weeks until the next one.

Not so this year. This year, they just keep coming. Now, usually, practice makes perfect and so making the next call is easier than the last one until by season’s end (whenever that can be said to happen, really, of winter in South Dakota), making the call is relatively easy.

But not for cancelling events due to COVID-19. As one superintendent lamented, during that same recent meeting, people — parents, students, extended family members — are becoming increasingly unwilling to accept cancellations and quarantines (a sort of personal cancellation). They, quite understandably, have grown tired of losing events, of seeing their and their child’s school experiences irretrievably lost. They yearn for a return to normalcy, for enjoying the activities they have counted on, some of them traditions generations-old. To paraphrase my colleague, “Parents who were willing to accept any sacrifice to get kids back into school are now fighting every cancelled game, every time we quarantine their child.”

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He’s right of course. When we cancelled in-person instruction back in mid-March of this year, I heard not a peep. Part of that was due to the fact that most believed the governor had closed schools, even those she only made that recommendation to local authorities. (Gov. Noem has held strongly to the view that local control works best and I can only applaud such a position, as it is consistent with her governing principles.) But part of it was also due to the sheer unknown-ness of the situation. Nobody really knew for sure what was best.

Having returned to school with students, most people were only too happy to make the necessary sacrifice to continue that. Increasingly, though, in-school is now the expectation. Since it is, people have come to expect that all other activities important to them will be held and enjoyed.

But the reality remains that if we want to keep students in school, some things will have to change, will have to be reduced in enjoyment, and will even have to be cancelled. So how do we decide? We do so by setting and paying what is due to our priorities.

And here they are:

  • Protect the health of our students and staff.

  • Educate our students physically in school.

  • Offer our full extracurricular (music, sports, forensics, dramatics, tutoring, etc.) program to our students.

These are not our only priorities but they are the top three in the current situation. Thus, when decisions need to be made, No. 3 will be sacrificed to No. 2 and No. 1. Modifications will be made to any of them if it protects the core of the priority involved.

So, yes, I did cancel the annual trunk-or-treat event at the middle school held on the Saturday before Halloween. And it pained me. For more than a decade now, I have enjoyed watching more than a thousand costumed little ones parade through the parking lot, delighted smiles hidden behind what we used to think of as masks. But it was also an event impossible to socially distance and so away it went … for this year. And the McGovern debate tournament, one of the very best in the state, has been set aside, for a virtual option. For this year. We’ve even disinvited other schools to a couple of our events when their “active” numbers seemed a bit over the top.

We’ve done it all to protect health, in-person schooling, and the extracurricular experiences we offer our young people. It’s a pain. It has built-in inconsistencies and even, arguably, double standards. It is met, increasingly, with an angry parent or two or even people who forget to report or just block information flow. And it is 2020.

It makes one sentimental for a good old-fashioned, simple, snow storm.