Perhaps the hardest question to answer during this COVID-19 pandemic is whether students should be in school.

Distance learning can be effective. However, especially for younger students, the personal interaction with teachers and classmates is important. Young people are less at risk than older folks, but nobody wants to take a risk with a child.

A study published last week in the JAMA Network Open found that limiting nonessential gatherings reduced the spread of the virus. It tracked the movement of residents in 211 counties that make up 55 percent of the U.S. population. It found that in counties where nonessential visits were cut in half, a single infected person transmitted the virus to 46% fewer people.

Physical distancing works.

Most schools in San Bernardino County will offer a virtual curriculum.

The University of Redlands appears to be an exception to the trend. As reporter Dina Colunga reports in this week’s edition, the university will offer hybrid, online and in-person classes.

Part of the U of R experience is living on campus, and that will continue this year. But occupancy will be limited and places for quarantine and isolation will be provided, if necessary.

The U of R school year begins on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

California State University, San Bernardino, and San Bernardino County community colleges both start on Monday, Aug. 17, mostly with distance learning.

Under orders of the California governor, Redlands Unified School District will start the year out virtually — online instruction only. The tentative first day of school is Thursday, Aug. 13.

“Learning is non-negotiable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his July 17 order to close schools in 33 counties where the virus has spread beyond acceptable limits, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

A $5.3 billion state education budget will provide support for rigorous and grade-appropriate instruction, including:

• Devices and connectivity so that every child can participate in distance learning.

• Daily live interaction for every child with teachers and other students.

• Class assignments that are challenging and equivalent to in-person instruction.

• Targeted supports and interventions for English learners and special education students.

Redlands Unified has responded appropriately. It provides Chromebooks for students, requires daily attendance, scheduled assessments and curriculum adopted by the school board.

While we want school children to be safe, we can’t let them fall behind in their studies. Their future depends on it.