Schools Out ... for Now?
After a warm and fire-work filled 4th of July weekend, the last thing people want to think about is the thought of returning back to school. However, as states work towards the next phase of reopening, a lot of the planning and discussion revolves around educational institutions. Whether it be the parents in need of 9-5 childcare, the special-education students that learn best with one-to-one, in-person interaction, or the High School senior that wants one last year with their friends — everyone wants to know, will in person learning resume?
The short answer is, and keeps seeming to be, that we don't have enough data to tell what is the safest and best response. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, in conjunction with education officials across the state, has released guidelines for public schools, highlighting that kids in the second grade and up will wear masks. Groups of students will stay together all day, including for lunch, and that desks must be at least 3 feet apart. This decision frustrated many on both ends of the caution spectrum — some believing it's too much, too soon while others believe its unnecessarily slow-to-start. Again, no right answers as to when or how, but what we do know are some of the potential risks that COVID-19 poses to the classroom:
As we've seen over the past few months, the corona virus is most commonly spread through infectious air particles, released while speaking, sneezing, coughing, etc. Within a school day, there are multiple interactions happening: between students and peers, teachers and students, teachers and other teachers, educators and administrative staff, janitorial staff and all who are in the building. Even with the mandatory face coverings, the chances of exposure increase, especially since the inappropriate usage of masks (pulled down, under the nose, etc.) is alarmingly common.
One of the reasons that cases have spiked in the Southern and South-Western part of the country has to do with the fact that much of the population is spending time inside, in air-conditioned spaces, to escape the summer heat. Within such enclosed spaces, infectious particles that happen to enter the air circulate around and heighten the risk of catching the virus. This type of spatial health risk applies to school buildings as well — small classrooms, air-conditioned offices and break rooms, shared bathrooms and gymnasiums are all part of the school experience. Even with students sitting at socially distanced desks, they all breathe the same, enclosed air for almost 7 hours a day.
The Boston Globe reported today that only 40% of Harvard undergraduates will return to campus this fall — an enrollment decrease that is drastically fueled by concerns regarding quality of life for resident scholars and the safety of dorm-living, until a vaccine is released. Though most common in college, dorm living is a part of boarding-school experience and many graduate programs. Students, especially those coming internationally to study, rely on the subsidized housing costs and cafeteria meal-plans that come along with dorm-life and it would radically change any type of educational experience if it was kept strictly non-resident. However, 100+ students sharing bedrooms, bathrooms, cafeteria buffets, athletic centers is absolutely impossible, given the severity of this virus.
As public health officials continue to reiterate, these various risks are not going to be ameliorated any time soon and if anything, they will continue to worsen — especially during flu season; an already risky and infectious time. In addition, there's been more and more discussion on the emotional and sociological impacts that COVID-19 have had on the population. Fear, loss, grief, anxiety, loneliness — everyone is struggling to manage the deadly combination of severity and uncertainty, that this type of virus brings. As places reopen, some of these feelings may start to ease, especially as human interaction begins to pick up again. However, it's imperative to realize that reopening can also have negative impacts on our mental health and social wellbeing. Living in constant fear of catching the virus, having it and not knowing, spreading it to a loved one is exhausting and can be a big burden on students and educators that are required to return to school before they are ready.
There are, of course, downsides to sticking with virtual learning, as well. We've seen complaints of diminished learning experience, due to condensed lessons, technological issues, and the inability to work with a teacher or a tutor, personally. We've also seen a diminished social experience, with students unable to socialize and learn together — something that can be detrimental for younger kids that are still developing social skills. The switch to digital teaching also highlights inequities within the student body, since not all students (and teachers) have the same access to technology, high-speed internet, and a quiet, safe work space which furthers issues of accessibility that already plague the education field.
The reality is, we still have another month and half of summer and our understanding of the virus and its nuances is bound to change during that time. While we wait to know more about what's best practice, all we can do is to continue to take the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and our communities safe and to take a second to reflect on and express our gratitude for the educators and health officials that are working to get school systems up and running in the most safe and efficient way possible.