WHEN A FAMILY member contracts AIDS -- particularly when the victim is a young child -- it is a terrible tragedy. Imagine then the plight of a single family with three sons, 10, 9 and 8 years old, all infected with the virus. Clifford and Louise Ray of Arcadia, Fla., are the parents in such a family. Their sons Richard, Robert and Randy are hemophiliacs who were presumably infected from blood products they received before the blood supply was made safe. The boys do not yet have symptoms of AIDS, but the odds are overwhelming that they will eventually get the disease.

There are not that many school-age children with AIDS. Most youngsters who have the disease contracted it from afflicted mothers, many of whom are addicts. These children usually do not live long enough to go to school. Older children with the virus, like the Rays, are more likely to have contracted it from contaminated blood transfusions, but that group is limited and no longer expanding. Many of these children want to go to school, and their cases have aroused controversy. The Rays and other parents have had to go to court to force school boards to accept their children -- a situation to which other parents have demonstrated resistance.

Last week, many children in Arcadia were kept home because the Ray boys were in school. But attendance was increasing steadily. On Friday night, the Rays' home was destroyed by a suspicious fire that is being investigated by local authorities and the FBI. The community is stunned by this apparent violence, and many who led the school boycott have rushed to condemn the wrongdoer -- if there is one -- and to help the family. But there is still confusion and differing opinion on the question whether the boys should be at school.

People who are infected with the AIDS virus can transmit it to others -- but not casually. Parents have been repeatedly assured by doctors and scientists that children are safe in school; but because the virus is so deadly, fears persist even when the risk is infinitesimal. It is not as easy to overcome this fear -- which may be irrational but is understandable -- as it is to condemn violence.

The best approach, we believe, is to treat these cases with candor and compassion and to make every effort to treat AIDS children normally. There is no place for either massive resistance or secrecy. Each case should be considered on its merits. Are the children, both the AIDS victim and his classmates, mature enough to understand each other's fears and combat them? Are there responsible adults in the school who can help in emergencies? Are school authorities providing help and reassurance -- not just to the family in need, but to all the parents involved?

These steps have been taken in some communities, and with patience and good will this problem -- which is temporary -- can be worked out elsewhere. No family should have to go through what the Rays are experiencing without the support and sympathy of its community.