The new school year will, as every year does, present its own challenges. Even when things go smoothly, school isn’t easy.

Younger students face the task of mastering basic skills and beginning to negotiate their way through increasingly complex social networks. Older students have increasing options with extracurricular activities, even as their own worlds shift when they reach the cusp of adulthood.

Teachers have to balance the classroom work and grading homework with the need to find ways to reach a couple dozen students — all of whom have different personalities and styles. They also have to find ways to work with those students’ parents. And, since life isn’t confined to the school grounds, they have to juggle all of that with their personal lives.

All of this is taking place while the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the background, giving students, teachers, parents and administrators few easy options. There’s more than one no-win scenario in play as people wrestle with responsibilities.

This fall, it looks like you can throw in bus drivers into the mix. Student Transit, which provides buses and drivers for Eau Claire and Altoona, had around 205 employees before the pandemic. They’re down to 177 now, a 13.6% drop. It leaves little space for illness, injury, or any other issue that could force a driver to step aside.

The lack of a margin for error comes through in General Manager Marty Klukas’ comments: “We’re going to start the year with all the routes having drivers, and that’s all we have.”

Other companies face similar pressure. The situation for Menomonie Transport isn’t quite so dire, but that company also is looking for new drivers. And those two companies mirror national trends. Recent articles in national media note a shortage of drivers in cities across the country. South Carolina’s largest school district is so short on drivers that it’s asking parents to drive their children to school if they can.

Even with those challenges, there’s reason for optimism. Teachers and administrators have always been creative in how they approach interactions with students and parents. Students have always been more resilient adaptable than they’re usually given credit for. This isn’t the first time companies have run short on bus drivers, and it probably won’t be the last.

The biggest reason for optimism is the simple fact students are back at schools. The results of last year’s forced experiment with remote classes are becoming clear, and it didn’t go as most would hope. While some students did indeed thrive, others foundered. Grades at Eau Claire high schools showed students received lower marks than normal, with significant increases in failing grades.

Simply being in class should help. Classrooms aren’t distraction-free, but they are designed to limit distractions in a way the home environment simply is not. Grades have long been consistent for the district, and there’s little reason to think they won’t bounce back somewhat this year. Will they be back to normal? Maybe not. But they should improve.

Students will have incentives that were absent at times last year. Activities that were curtailed or canceled should return. Both freshmen and sophomores are looking forward to their first high school dances. The cycle of events and milestones should be much closer to what generations of students knew.

Heck, even North’s football team ticked a major box in the improvement category, notching its first win in 51 games.

Yes, there are most definitely challenges. Admitting that isn’t being pessimistic, it’s acknowledging reality. But let’s make sure that we temper both our optimism and our caution with realism. Things most likely will not be as good as we might hope. But they probably won’t match our worst fears, either.

It’s funny, if you think about it. Everyone ponders the new beginnings offered when the calendar turns to January 1 each year. But the opportunities for new beginnings are hardly limited to that date, and the new academic year offers proof.

The upcoming year won’t be easy. But it never is, really. A little patience and persistence will make it easier, though.