I was going to offer scholarly arguments for setting clear priorities as schools welcome students back to class. But a candid math teacher told me to get real.

Bill Horkan works at Justice High School in Fairfax County, Va. He has repeatedly shown me over the years how classrooms actually operate. “There is almost nothing that if the students do not learn that thing, they will be severely at a disadvantage later in life,” he said. “There are no facts, no equations, no theories, no lessons that if the students do not get them this year, they will be in trouble in the future.”

Instead, he said, math instructors during difficult times like these should teach how to solve problems and where to seek answers when puzzled. “It doesn’t matter if students forget the quadratic equation, which can always be looked up online,” he said.

That radical notion was supported by Robin Lake, director of the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Paul T. Hill, research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, in a recent article on “The Lens” website about how schools can make up for time lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The emergency imposes a reality check on aspirational student learning standards,” they said. “In the past three decades, states and testing consortia have accumulated student learning standards, with every academic discipline and curriculum specialty able to add its own priorities. The result was a broad set of desires that were not checked for whether real schools serving real students could cover them all without watering them all down.”

Here are examples: Among the 109 items to be learned in the Virginia Standards of Learning for Economics and Personal Finance are “comparing the costs and benefits of different forms of business organization, including sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, franchise, and cooperative” as well as “explaining how certain historical events have influenced the banking system and other financial institutions.”

Among 72 items in the World History and Geography to 1500 A.D. standards in Virginia, students are told to apply “social science skills to understand the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Europe from about 300 to 1000 A.D. by . . . characterizing the role Byzantine art and architecture played in the preservation of Greek and Roman traditions.”

Maybe some of these have changed. It’s hard to keep up. My questions are: Who has the courage to say our kids don’t have time for such marginalia? Will the states ever dial down the excess learning standards in which they have so much invested?

Joshua P. Starr, chief executive officer of the PDK International professional organization for educators, noted recently in the Phi Delta Kappan journal that the school district offices we assume will make these decisions weren’t designed for instructional improvement. They were “organized for fiscal and programmatic compliance with local, state, and federal regulations and for operational functions such as food,” he explained.

Starr said at this critical point it is essential that teachers be the leaders in deciding what to teach. How should we react then when experts like Horkan, who has been in classrooms for 23 years, tell us it does not matter if a student hasn’t learned the symbolism of the handkerchief in Othello? Lake told me she thinks states, districts and schools are capable of identifying high priority skills for special attention, though I have my doubts.

I have been thinking of the venerable concept of the three Rs, reading, writing and ’rithmetic, said to have first appeared in an 1818 issue of The Lady’s Magazine, a British publication. I think those categories still have merit. What was most important about my schooling was developing the habits of reading, writing and at least making an effort to understand how numbers worked. As Horkan noted, the old MacBook Air perched on my lap at the moment can look up any fact I want.

Could we politely ask our teachers to give their returning students as much reading and writing as possible? As for math, Horkan and company seem ready to focus on how to solve problems and where to go when stuck.

As a student I prided myself on knowing nonessential facts. I never lost that annoying quirk. My fondest memory of my 25th high school class reunion was a trivia contest in which I was the only person in that big room who knew “One Fine Day” was sung by the Chiffons. I recently compiled a list of my 136 favorite tunes, including that one, but most of the details I got from Wikipedia.

If we let teachers focus on what they know is most important while the various authorities argue over what to require, we might get through this transition back to classrooms safely. We and the students we know and love might even be the better for it.