My wife and I, like parents across the US and beyond, are grappling with a very difficult situation at the moment: the start of another school year for our children amidst rampant COVID-19 spread in our state and country. Our local school district has decided that its more than 18,000 students will start the 2020–21 school year with a “remote for all” educational model. Kids from 3 to 18 years old, including our preschooler and two elementary school students, will log in to virtual classrooms to meet with teachers, interact with classmates, and follow a curriculum that had to be reenvisioned in the face of the disruption and forced flexibility wrought by the ongoing pandemic.
We followed along intently via livestreamed meetings as our district school board hashed out the details of the coming academic year, hoping that evidence-based thinking and appropriately proportioned risk avoidance would guide its decisions. By and large that was the case, and our board heeded warnings and guidance from state and federal public health agencies. Other schools, including private schools in our area, have chosen to invite teachers, students, and staff members back into classrooms with precautions designed to reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Frankly, I feel for the cohort that is returning to schools in person this fall. Especially for teachers, who are perennially underappreciated, underpaid, and overworked, being forced back into the classroom seems to add insult to historical injury. In effect, they must choose between their vocation and their health, between the needs of their students and the safety of themselves and their loved ones.
My consternation arises from facts on the ground. In Israel, schools across the nation returned to in-person instruction in late May. Within days, one Jerusalem high school reported that 154 students and 26 staff members had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Infections rippled into their communities. Eli Waxman, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science and chairman of the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on reopening schools, shared some advice in early August for other countries weighing the benefits and drawbacks of opening schools. “They definitely should not do what we have done,” he told The New York Times. “It was a major failure.”
Israel made its decision to reopen at a time when the country was reporting fewer than 100 new infections per day. As of this writing (in mid-August), on the eve of many US schools opening their doors, America is seeing an average of more than 56,000 new cases per day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, in Georgia, schools in a suburban district north of Atlanta opened on August 3. By August 12, nearly 1,200 students and staff members had been ordered to quarantine due to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 10 schools.
I consider these episodes to be clear cautionary tales. Adding to this anecdotal evidence is the evolving science surrounding the susceptibility of young people. Recent research has combated notions of adolescents being less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and in fact has suggested that children who contract the virus may carry higher viral loads than adults. To be sure, I am aware of the fact that for children, school is far more than an educational forum. For most, it fulfills vital social needs for peer interaction. And for too many, even for kids within my own district, school offers a respite from abuse, hunger, or an otherwise chaotic or uncertain home life. Taking away that refuge represents something much more dangerous than a delay or alteration in the educational process.
But for the millions engaging in virtual learning this semester, I am hopeful that parents, students, and teachers can view the situation in a light that extends beyond the obvious disruption to education as usual. I am hopeful that my own kids and others in their classes will cultivate valuable skills and thought patterns as they navigate the technological and social realities before them. After all, even before the pandemic changed so much about life in 2020, the world was becoming ever more connected, virtual, and off-site. There is a strong probability that the next generation will be learning or working remotely in their lifetimes. So at the start of another school year, one that none of us will soon forget, I commend staff members, teachers, school board members, students, and parents who are braving our new normal, and urge them to see the positive in this difficult situation.