When schools are dangerous

Everyone I know was waiting for schools to open. Our kids could have live classes and interact with their friends, and we could get back to work. The long days of shuttling between three kids on their zoom classes and helping them with assignments while trying to squeeze in some work were going to yield to a familiar, productive routine.

Initially it looked like there was actually a plan. A little complicated, and nightmarish for the schools to implement, but it balanced educational end economic needs, added a healthy dose of caution, and could have served as a gateway toward responsible schooling. But within 48 hours political and economic pressure prevailed, and schools were back in session without any substantive precautions.

Of course, there were going to be safety measures – masks, wipes, and alcogel would accompany pencils, markers, and lunches – but the suddenness of the switch left me skeptical about the reality of its safety. Could you really put thirty kids in a room and expect them to wear masks all day? Could there be any semblance of social distancing in over-crowded and under-staffed buildings? Did the people making these decisions have any sense of the reality on the ground? Did they institute any systems of accountability to ensure that the appropriate rules were being enforced? Where are the Health and Education Ministries in all of this?

After much deliberation, my wife and I, together with our children, weighed the plusses and minuses of the return to school, and made a difficult decision. Two of our children would remain home while one would go back to school (all three are on different schools). The decision included our assessment of each school’s capacity and willingness to maintain the rules, as well as the fact that we are assisting in the care of aging grandparents. Ironically, the one has a woefully inadequate facility and an administration which was brutally honest about their ability to adhere to the guidelines they were handed.

The first week was challenging. The child who returned to school was thrilled and reported that the students and teachers wore their masks and that many efforts were invested in appropriate social distancing, despite the school’s severely limited facilities. The other children grew frustrated and bored, especially since the schools were reluctant to cooperate with our decision, with one refusing to send home any work she was missing. At the end of the week, given the success with the one child who returned to school, we decided to send our other two children as well. They were elated and bolted out the door in the morning with great energy and enthusiasm.

When they came home, however, their sullen faces told a different story. None of the children were wearing masks, and even many of the teachers had their masks laconically draped on their chins. There was laughter and hugging and sharing of lunches, just like before, and one teacher even announced that on Tuesday they we going to be making food together.

My children are confused and frightened. Does the virus know not to spread in school buildings? Is there a magical immunity for children? Is it safe for them to go back tomorrow? Will they end up as carriers, bringing the virus to their immune-compromised grandparents? Perhaps worst of all, they have lost trust in the people who are responsible for their safety, well-being, and education. And if they can’t trust them with their safety, how can they continue to learn from them?

About the Author
Zvi Grumet is a Rabbi and educator with more than 30 years of active involvement in Jewish education and Jewish life, both in Israel and overseas.
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