Schools: open or closed – all or nothing?

The health systems and the economy are going through very tough times in Israel and the US. The hopes that the Covid-19 virus will behave like the normal flu and be contained and manageable during the coming fall and winter seasons are being smashed by the grim reality. A vaccine will not make the epidemic magically disappear next year either: optimistically assuming that an effective vaccine will be developed by the end of this year, the needed mass production in the tens of millions of units and the education of the public so it will be willing to use the vaccine are two hurdles that will be difficult to overcome during the first half of year 2021.

The economy cannot be kept shut down for another year: the large majority of the population must have the confidence and certainty that the economy will be open in a sustainable way (not ‘on’ and ‘off’, back and forth, depending on the whims of the virus outbreaks). Some activities will have to go through fast and profound changes in the way they operate during the next 1-2 years, until the pandemic will be over.

How the schools will operate next year is critical for a sustainable open economy: parents should know with confidence that their children will be safe and taken care off, during the long daily hours when they are at work.

At the local level, school districts could implement a variety of different programs for children of any age, depending on the local circumstances in their neighborhoods. But at the national level there should be a coherent global minimum of common objectives that should be implemented at every school in the country and that should be financially supported by the state. These minimum common objectives should be:

1) Children in the ages 3-8, that medical studies suggest are quite immune to Covid-19 and are not significant spreaders of the virus should be able to attend pre-school, kindergarten and school. This will allow the majority of parents to go back to work, knowing that their young children – who cannot be left alone at home – are being taken care off.

2) Teenagers, 16-17 years old, in the last two years of high-school should be at school. From the academic point of view, they cannot afford to lose one year due to the epidemic: For many of them, their future lives will depend on the education they get in these two critical last years at high school. Density in the classroom should be minimized by splitting the classes into morning and afternoon periods, and encouraging the work in small groups through a mixing of projects and online learning. Teachers in high-risk for the virus (mainly teachers above a certain age or with health preconditions) should not be forced to teach these classes. They should be encouraged instead to move to online teaching of children in the 9-15 year-old range during this emergency period (see next paragraph)

3) Children in the 9-15 years range will stay at home and the state will provide the maximum possible help to facilitate online learning. A partnership between the state and private companies should ensure the immediate deployment of basic emergency infrastructure (transmission/reception towers for wireless communication) to provide access everywhere in the country for teaching purposes, where this access is still lacking.  A partnership between the state and private companies will also secure the free loaning of cheap computers to every student in need. The state will facilitate teacher training and provide materials to ensure that there are enough qualified teachers to provide online good-quality learning to every student.

The combination of the above three steps will make the schools a safer place for all: more rooms at schools will become available, so that the number of students per class will be kept low, enabling safe distances between students in the same room. And parents will be able to go back to work, knowing that their children are safe and being taken care off.

About the Author
Jaime Kardontchik has a PhD in Physics from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. He lives in the Silicon Valley, California.
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