The irony of sending our children back to school

Across the country, school boards and administrations are holding Zoom meetings to discuss how to safely phase children back into the classrooms. The main concern of parents and teachers alike seems to be that students will fall behind if they study remotely again in the fall, with many unable to catch up. Remote learning also places a financial and logistical burden on the many parents who rely on schools to feed and house their children during work hours. Many schools, however, are ill-equipped to receive students in the midst of a pandemic.

A great irony presents itself as schools strategize how to reopen their classrooms. The vast majority of these discussions are taking place over Zoom or, in some cases, a select few members of school boards are choosing to meet in person for limited spans of time. Moreover, in these strictly socially distanced and most often remote meetings, principals, administrators, parents and board members alike discuss sending children back to school where they will be in small, often poorly ventilated classrooms.

In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in southwestern Massachusetts, the school board had to end a meeting abruptly because the in-person members had been in a meeting room together for more than the set two-hour limit. These members failed to see or acknowledge the disconnect that they were worried about being in a large, sparsely occupied room together for two hours, while they were at the same time preparing to send their children into classrooms with dozens of other students for hours at a time.

It is nearly impossible to guarantee that children will follow the six feet social distancing guidelines and wear their masks at all times. Photos have already surfaced of packed school hallways, without a single mask in sight. How is it that parents and administrators are worried about meeting in large rooms spread out from one another, yet do not see that they are forcing their students into far riskier environments than those for up to eight hours each day? 

We have received constant messaging and advising that we do not need to worry about children getting the virus and becoming sick. However, although children are less likely to fall dangerously ill from COVID-19, they are just as likely as adults to contract and transmit the virus. Media outlets and health advisers alike need to cease their emphasis on the fact that children have a lower fatality rate from the virus. It perpetuates a dangerous belief that they are somehow immune to it altogether––a blatant untruth that implies that they are incapable of transmitting it to others.

In the moments when teachers are unable to supervise the students, there is nothing to stop students from congregating in groups without masks or social distancing. Even in places where we would expect students to be more mature and understand the dangers involved, such as college campuses, safety guidelines have been ignored and cases have spiked. SUNY Oneonta was forced to shut down until Sept. 13 after 105 students tested positive for COVID-19 following parties held over the weekend. While the situation is itself bad, this spread was contained to a single campus; a similar situation would be much more dangerous if it was children in classrooms at K-12 schools who go home to their families every day. 

The United States has repeatedly demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of this virus and of pandemics at large. Misinformation has been passed from the top down as public officials (particularly those in conservative areas) downplay the virus’ threat, and countless researchers seek to prove that children are less likely to contract the virus—all in an effort to accelerate the process of reopening schools and the economy. We will not be finished with this virus until either the case load is zero or a cure or vaccine has been found. There is no functioning economy in a pandemic. The process of schools reopening has only reaffirmed this reality. Our determination to keep our students “on track” (at an arbitrary and predetermined quantitative and qualitative level) and speed up our return to a sense of normalcy has blinded us to the realities of this virus. Students were sent home in March when there were fewer than 4000 confirmed cases. Yet now, with 44,000 new cases every day, students at schools across the country are being thrown back into the classrooms, even as we continue to suffer a severe shortage of personal protective equipment across the country. 

I acknowledge the irony that I, myself, am guilty of returning back to campus in order to restore some semblance of normalcy to my life. I made this decision, however, based on three crucial realities: first, I knew Vassar was developing a well thought-out plan for a structured return to campus; second, campus is largely contained within a “bubble,” making it easier to ensure that the student body remains insular; and third, I knew I was going to be entering a situation in which I would not see my family or anyone else outside of Vassar for three months and would thus not risk exposing anyone off-campus. I acknowledge the immense privilege I have to be able to feel comfortable that if I returned to my school’s campus, I would not be putting anyone else at risk. This is not the reality, however, for the vast majority of students across the country. 

If students at public schools and private day schools continue in-person classes, we will inevitably see a nationwide spike in case numbers, thus ensuring we will not be able to return to a “new normal” any time soon.

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