SO NOW THE TEACHERS' strike goes into its fourth week, having taken on a wretched life of its own that ignores the central question: How much damage has been done to the children's schooling? This is not the sort of thing you can calibrate with any precision. But it is clear that each day of this war between the inept and the arrogant is wrecking an already fragile system. Those children who already were struggling well below the levels of their contemporaries elsewhere have been losing still more ground daily as the schedules for entire learning sequences, report periods, regular tests, graduation and summer work have being going unmet.

Quite aside from who is trying to save how much face in the board-union negotiations, all parties should come to public grips with the task of salvaging the school year. Neither the union's threats to keep its ranks out indefinitely nor the school board's talk of firing teachers addresses this immediate plight. If there is any "interim" still under discussion for some sort of patchwork agreement or court order, it should be no shorter than the rest of school year -- whatever that takes. Though the summer months may not be all that conducive to serious negotiations, at least the children would have a fighting chance to make up their work in some reasonable amount of time -- say, by the end of June at the latest.

Certainly the school administration could offer some indication of how instruction will be made up -- even if it can't be completely spelled out right now. Surely the superintendent won't continue the sham of counting these strike days as official school days. There are decisions to be made -- and shared with the public -- now, without waiting for a total resolution of the strike. For example, two days of spring vacation are still scheduled for next month (the rest having been used for snow-day makeups). Shouldn't they be automatically and immediately redesignated as school days? In addition, aren't there some loosely-scheduled wrap-up days in June, not to mention a holiday in May, that can be used for fullscale instruction? And even if longer hours and school days aren't possible, couldn't he regular school-day schedules be adjusted to shorten home-room periods, recesses, lunch-hours and the like in favor of longer class sessions?

There are questions, of course, about who might work any extra hours, and surely the striking teachers deserve no special reward for their illegal walkout. But parents and students deserve some assurances that their needs are not shoved to a back-burner for the duration.