Back To School? More Like Into a Haz-Mat Zone

Some things don’t go well together: Texting and driving. Dogs and chocolate. Fire and alco-gel. Elementary schools and masks.

The government has decided that schools will re-open their doors this Sunday for students up to the third grade. This would include my younger daughter, who is in kita bet. But the litany of rules, requirements, and modifications the Ministry of Education has issued to schools, and schools in turn to parents, leave my husband and me quite unsettled.

No, I am not terribly concerned that my daughter will catch the coronavirus and bring it home to us or that the school will become a breeding ground for infection; fortunately, with thanks to the Almighty, all signs indicate that the worst of this medical crisis is behind us here in Israel.

What troubles me is that the Ministry’s plan turns schools into mini haz-mat zones, and that sending our kids inside (we can’t even walk them through the door) could inflict psychological damage, especially for those already struggling with anxiety due to the upheaval in their lives and the world around them.

School should be – and feel like – a safe zone to children. Having to walk around with a mask, tote a full stash of de-germing supplies (shouldn’t the government supply that?), keep a distance from your classmates, dare not share a cookie, bring a daily note proclaiming normal body temperature: These measures create the very opposite effect. Kids are resilient, and some will surely accept the strange reality with ease. As the mother of an anxious child, however, I know that others will struggle, and that the signs of that struggle could reveal themselves in all sorts of unpredictable ways for an indefinite period of time.

In the span of a few weeks this winter, the world as our children knew it turned from familiar to frightening. The virus, they quickly absorbed, could be everywhere. Friends and loved ones? Stay away. Outside? Yes, it’s good to get fresh air, but don’t touch anything and don’t get too close to anyone else.

The only safe haven in all this has been home. The place where you eat, play, pray, learn, and chat through a screen with those whose hands you used to hold.

With this in mind, the return to school must be handled with utmost consideration for the psychological well-being of our children, who have already had to process so many changes. Venturing away from the comfort of home base, the destination must be a place in which kids feel likewise reassured. Don’t worry, guys. We’ve got this. Everything’s OK here. I don’t believe the current plan accomplishes that.

Experts differ about the ways and means of the novel virus, the wisdom of lockdowns and the best way forward. The government – and by that I mean the two or three individuals who have been making all the hugely impactful decisions about corona policy – has the unenviable job of weighing the polylithic data and determining when and how to restore the hallmarks of normal society which have been suspended since early March.

Opening schools is a priority for many reasons, and I’m quite eager for that to happen. But if officials truly believe that teachers are at risk of mass infection and that the only thing that stands between them (and soon enough, everyone else) is a thin piece of cloth sitting lopsided on the face of an eight-year-old, well, then, it’s best to keep the schools closed a little bit longer. In a few more weeks, students and teachers can all return without the need – if there even is one now – for all the window dressing.

The safety measures called for by the government create the appearance of doctorly caution but instead stand to cause the kind of harm that is most difficult to undo.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., is a contributing editor for The Jewish Press and is at work on her second children's book for Targum Press. (Her first title, Kalman’s Big Questions, was published last year.) She feels grateful to be living with her husband and children in Jerusalem.
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