Our View: The new normal

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Restaurants during phase one of reopening. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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The cartoon in the May 7 Alexandria Times depicted a man and woman walking up to a restaurant with people sitting at outdoor tables and wait staff bringing them food. The woman said to the man, “It’s nice to see things returning to normal.” The visual punchline was that everyone was clad from head to toe with masks, shields, gloves and even protective clothing.

Clearly, our cartoonist, Robert Ariail, was depicting a new normal.

Likewise, two announcements this week indicate that we continue to inch toward at least limited resumption of normal life: plans for reopening schools in Virginia that will likely include a mixture of in-person and remote learning and Northern Virginia entering phase two of reopening from the pandemic shutdown this Friday.

On Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Education released guidance for school districts on safely reopening schools. Alexandria City Public Schools has put together a task force, Thought Partners, whose members are developing a plan for reopening the city’s public schools. The task force held its second of three meetings this month on Wednesday and is scheduled to present a preliminary plan to the school board on June 26.

It’s clear that the need for physical distancing makes a return to pre-pandemic schedules and practices unlikely, at least to start the 2020-21 school year. Remote learning worked better in Alexandria than in oth- er Virginia jurisdictions, particularly Fairfax County, which was plagued with glitches and missteps. But remote instruction is simply not as effective as in-person learning, particularly for younger children.

The three months of learning that were diminished because of the full pandemic shutdown were necessary, and they can’t be retrieved. The focus is now correctly aimed at reopening as fully as is safely possible, while taking precautions to avoid the need for another full shutdown of schools.

Another step toward normal life came with Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) announcement that Northern Virginia will enter phase two of reopening on Friday. Restaurants will now be able to seat and serve patrons inside, provided tables are at least six feet apart, at up to 50 percent of their approved capacity.

Religious organizations can hold in-person services, with physical distancing and other restrictions. Parks, trails and pools will now reopen, along with indoor exercise facilities.

Fortuitously, this expanded reopening coincides with the arrival of summer, when people who are still working and learning remotely can now make use of fenced-in parks, trails and fields.

While a major step in the right direction – provided people actually follow physical distancing and mask wearing requirements – this is not the same as life before the pandemic.

It’s our new normal.

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