Normally at this time of year, back-to-school angst begins to arrive, usually in the minds of students who are hardly eager for summer vacation to end.
But nothing is normal in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. This year, the anxiety typically felt by students has spread to parents, teachers and everyone else connected with education as infection numbers that we all had hoped would be receding by this point are instead surging at an alarming rate both in the St. Louis area and nationally.
So instead of reporting to their buildings to get their classrooms in shape for the first day of school, teachers are scrambling to adjust to the new reality, coping with a dizzying array of hybrid learning scenarios: some days in-person, some days virtual. And many, fearful of health problems, are saying they don’t want in-school teaching at all.
What’s a school district to do?
In an interview with the Light published earlier this month, Dr. David Rosen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in St. Louis, said studies have indicated that there is a low rate of transmission among children, particularly prepubescent children. With older children in middle and high school, the risk of transmission and the risk of having more severe illness increases but overall still remains low. However, many adults who come into regular contact with children are understandably afraid of what the effect of regular, prolonged interaction with students might be, even with frequent testing and monitoring.
In the case of local Jewish day schools, reopening may be easier because the student population at most of these schools is much smaller than in larger public school districts. At Torah Prep School, for example, students primarily come from families who attend Agudas Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in University City, so the threat of contagion from people outside the group is reduced. Rabbi Tzvi Freedman, executive director of the school, told the Jewish Light:
“We can make certain rules possibly about traveling, or not traveling, which we might be doing, where a public school probably can’t do that.”\
Other Jewish day schools are also taking precautions to safeguard the health of students and teachers. Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, for example, plans to require masks among its middle school students and all teachers and use plexiglass barriers to help maintain safe distances in classrooms, said Cheryl Maayan, head of the school.
At local Jewish preschools that reopened during the summer, enrollment is down, driven by the doubts that the pandemic presents. Those who are grappling with troubling uncertainties include medical professionals such as Dr. Rosen, who is also a Mirowitz parent.
Rosen told the Light that based on experiences where schools have reopened in Europe, China and Australia, children can return to classrooms with very low risk that they will contract the virus themselves or transmit it to others. But his views come with an important caveat: All plans are subject to change as experience and research on the virus advance.
At area public schools, the landscape is much different than at Jewish day schools and private institutions. Some public school districts have announced in-person learning for children from kindergarten to fourth grade with virtual learning for everyone else while other districts will be virtual only, at least when school starts, and still others are choosing more of a hybrid approach. None of these is optimal — that is one thing nearly everyone can agree on regardless of politics, which, unfortunately, seems to have had a hand in the decision-making process of schools reopening.
Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued revised guidelines that seem to follow the White House’s desire for widespread school opening rather than address the very real risks. And despite the call by President Donald Trump for open classrooms, even the school where his son Barron is enrolled told families to expect all-distance or hybrid learning when classes resume.
The truth is there is no roadmap for the decision to reopen schools in the midst of a health pandemic. As soon as teachers and/or students and/or their parents in one school get the virus — and judging from the way it seems to spread the likelihood of that happening is high — the public will be second-guessing whether in-person learning was a good idea at all. Yet, at the same time, the socialization of children at school, with their peers, learning directly from their teachers in the classroom, is also vital to the growth and development of healthy young people, and no one wants to diminish the importance of that.
There really are no good — or easy—answers when it comes to resuming school this fall. What decision is ultimately made by a district as to the best way for it to reopen needs input from all stakeholders involved, including teachers, parents and students of a certain age.
Everyone involved needs to heed the hard lessons learned when pressure from politicians to reopen in the spring led to a new surge in cases by midsummer. Decisions on how and when to resume classes may be easier to reach and enforce in small private schools than in larger public districts, but the process in all cases should be the same: Follow the science, not public or political pressure. Students, teachers and parents deserve nothing less.