Based upon the current data, we should not be sending children 0-7 back to school in August or September. That means that students in PreK-2nd grade need to stay home until the “all clear” alarm rings and they can safely return to an environment similar to what school looked like prior to March 2020. Children under 8 cannot be expected to consistently follow social distancing and PPE guidelines, so they risk harm to themselves, other children, school staff, and family members.
Children who are 8 years and older (rising 3rd graders) are more likely to have the capacity to follow the safety rules, so I would be in favor of bringing them back on a staggered schedule with the understanding that schools will be sanitized regularly.
In schools, we need to create health teams made up of administrators, parents, health professionals, and custodians to monitor the system and evaluate the empirical and physical data. We need to know what works because our children’s health and community’s well-being are at stake and therefore should not hesitate to make changes. When we see improvement, only then should we consider bringing in lower grades.
Regarding sanitization, we need to empower head custodians to determine if they think it is feasible to make this workable. If not, I would have school boards provide them with the tools or people power they need to achieve the proper level of cleanliness.
Teachers are on the front lines with children. They are the ones who can tell us if third graders are incapable of social distancing, for example, while the health professionals periodically evaluate rates of transmission in the community. Teachers know their students’ abilities and are better equipped to judge individual children’s ability to adhere to safety rules. Therefore, we need to give the teacher’s discretion to identify children who are making the environment safe or unsafe for other children. When necessary, teachers can suggest that children return home until they are able to comply with the guidelines.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over and rates of infection are rising. And so we must ask ourselves – are we rushing the process?
Certainly, most of us are tired of complying and we want our lives to return to something normal. Furthermore, we want our children to get back to the business of learning and socializing with their peers and teachers. As parents, many of us want and need to go back to work. Our economy has suffered a tremendous blow and we cannot afford to prop up businesses and individuals for too much longer without risking a financial collapse.
Regardless, health always comes first. Humans are very adaptable creatures and we can and should put safety above all other concerns. My fear, however, is that the inertia of public opinion is fast-forwarding us to "normal" and a premature return may make matters worse. Have we really considered what can happen if we approach 100,000 new cases per day? Are we willing to sacrifice senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions so that Johnny can learn his multiplication tables, go back to Karate class and attend summer camp? If we do so, we may be making a Faustian bargain, where we value our children's learning and social needs over their safety.
Reflection Precedes Action
After 9-11, there was a moment when many of us felt that our leaders had an opportunity to create a new understanding of everyone’s suffering. Yes, we correctly addressed the suffering of the victims, their families, and the ground zero workers, but we lost the chance to examine the suffering of others, those who have been affected by America’s actions in the Mideast because it was politically easier to create an enemy instead. When we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we also took it upon ourselves to exact a toll on others so that we could return to life as we like it and know it.
How do the lessons of 9-11, the atomic bomb, and countless other situations compare to the pandemic and sending children back to school? Simply put, we are not a very patient people. We like our leaders to make fast decisions so that we can move from the discomfort of weighing our options and choose one. Our feeling seems to be, we can fix it later if it breaks down or doesn’t work.
What’s At Risk?
Ask yourself – what is more, precious than the lives of our children? Are you willing to experiment with them, to give them a corona vaccine before it has been thoroughly tested? Would you let a second-grader cross a busy street alone to see if they make it to the other side? If not, then why would you send your children to school when there is insufficient data to suggest that it’s safe? Yes, that’s right. We have no authoritative data on the transmission of this disease to children 1-10 years old.
My children are grown and so my wife and I can only guess what it is like to have children home for months and months. I am sure that it’s a trial. And we also know that some children are more likely to be neglected or abused when they are home 24/7. Clearly, there are many good reasons beyond learning and social interaction that make it important for children to return to school.
This is a fluid situation. And that’s why testing matters and so does contact tracing. When we have better data, we make better decisions. When we base our choices on our impatience or best guesses, someone may suffer. Until such time that the information gets better, I am going to stick with this: we should not be sending our young children back to school now.