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Is it ethical to send our children back to school?

The short answer is: Yes. The path to that conclusion may depend on how much you trust the leadership that decided to open the schools
Illustrative: A school classroom. (Image via Shutterstock)
Illustrative: A school classroom. (Image via Shutterstock)

In recent days, Israel has begun the process of reopening its educational system — something that some other nations have already faced and others will be forced to contend with in the weeks and months ahead. The very nature of the coronavirus crisis is defined by uncertainty. Every decision made on all sorts of levels comes with many questions as to whether it is now the right time to relax and what the costs of doing so would be. These decisions therefore have a definite ethical element and these questions are both delicate and challenging when it comes to the welfare of our children.

We are required to ask these questions because the stakes are so high: are we ethically permitted to send our children back to school when we know there is a definite element of risk?

Life is, by nature, risky. With that in mind, we must acknowledge that certain risks have to be taken in order to maintain a “normal” sense of living.  If law and halacha forbade any action that had an element of danger, we would be paralyzed. Children could never go to school because roads are dangerous, schoolhouses are notorious for violence — and certainly for the spread of virus.

This concept extends to everything we do in life and therefore everything we do involves carefully measuring the risks versus the benefit.

The challenge of course is determining where the red line is. When are we allowed to say that the risk is worth taking — because if we don’t, we are not living? And conversely when do we determine that a specific decision can be considered so dangerous that we must never take the chance?

As an ethicist, my answers come from the moral/ethical perspective. However, there are always practical considerations that may impact the given situation in question, and they must be weighed as well.

This determination is part of what is demanded of leadership, and respect for leadership (even if we are not always politically aligned with our leaders or all of their decisions) requires a modicum of trust on our part. That is, there is an ethical imperative to trust and be guided by leaders who act responsibly.

I realize that there are those who do not trust in the “leadership establishment,” and will make the difficult ethical decisions on their own.  Yet, for them too, there is no ethical reason that one cannot legitimately decide that a child can go to school.

Therefore, based on either evaluation — national/communal or individual/personal — I maintain that there is no ethical or moral obstacle to a parent deciding to send his or her child back to school. Moreover, it would be wrong to judge such a decision as unethical.

Nonetheless, this is a deeply complex and evolving situation, where the facts on the ground are constantly changing.  Based on those changes, both our national leaders and parents must regularly measure the risks against the benefits, and based on that analysis, act responsibly.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, director of Tzohar’s Center for Jewish Ethics, has received hundreds of questions relating to COVID-19 and related ethical considerations. To submit a question email: tzohar.ethics@tzohar.org.il

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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