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If not now, when?

The answer, as far as West Virginia’s public schools are concerned, appears to be Jan. 19.

That’s the day schools will reopen for in-person instruction for children in elementary and middle schools. High schools will be open if their counties are not red on the color-coded map that has been used for months.

Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday announced the target date for reopening schools. The decision isn’t popular in some quarters, but it’s a necessary one. The governor and the state Department of Education shared a statistic that tracks with experience in other states that have relied on remote learning while schools are closed: About one-third of students have received failing grades in at least one core subject area, such as math or English.

That is not acceptable.

Students have lost months of learning, and each additional month they are on remote learning will require more time to catch up once schools reopen.

When and whether to reopen schools this academic year has been debated across the country. States and local districts have had to balance the need to provide education tio students while protecting them and employees from the spread of the disease.

Justice’s decision was not received warmly by the West Virginia Education Association.

“There’s no question that kids learn better in front of a teacher, but, again, we’re putting people at risk,” Dale Lee, WVEA president, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Not only our educators, but we’re putting our students, parents and grandparents at the possibility of risk.”

During Wednesday’s news conference, Justice also announced that vaccines will be offered to all teachers and school service personnel, such as bus drivers and custodians, older than 50 over the next two to three weeks. Employees younger than 50 also will be vaccinated, Justice said, but he didn’t provide a timetable.

The Jan. 19 date is not firm. Justice said local control will be respected on when schools should open. Also, the state Department of Education said families will have the choice of continuing remote learning after Jan. 19.

If all this sounds confusing — children will return Jan. 19, or maybe they won’t — welcome to state government during a pandemic, when decisions are as much political as they are anything else.

That does not negate the basic problem, however. West Virginia’s schoolchildren have not had a normal classroom experience since schools closed last March because of the pandemic.

The vaccine is being administered. If this is not the time to bring children — the population least vulnerable to the virus — back to school, then when? What benchmark or metric devised by what agency will West Virginia use to determine when schools are safe to reopen?

Local officials will need to do their parts to ensure classrooms and buses are cleaned and ventilated adequately. At least now they have a deadline to get that accomplished.

If we’re don’t reopen schools this month, what do we do for those children who are falling behind because remote learning is not working for them? The status quo is failing our children.

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