Stop Pretending It’s Safe to Reopen Schools

“Let the old die as long as the young live” seems to be the school board’s message as they make plans to reopen schools. 

They claim the new regulations, including wearing a mask at all times and maintaining a six-feet distance will protect us. However, as good as these regulations may sound on paper, they are guaranteed to fail in a real school setting, as the school board has overlooked student behavior during the design process. 

Imagine lunch break: with five minutes to the end of the 4th or 5th period, students cannot wait to dash out, meet their friends and share their lunches. Now, imagine ‘hanging out’ six feet apart from everyone. Not only will the conversations be awkward, but, at some point, the temptation to hang-out the ‘normal’ way will also overpower us. The masks will come off, and the six-feet distance will reduce to one foot.

Physical classes will also be a different environment. Can you sit through the entire school day wearing a mask? Probably not. The masks will eventually come off. Furthermore, with the six-feet distancing guidelines, small-group discussions and projects will become a thing of the past. Such circumstances will force teachers to rely on direct instruction, which is less effective than collaborative work, according to a study by Valparaiso University. At least Zoom offers breakout rooms, through which we could engage in collaborative work and actually  see each other’s faces, thereby achieving some sense of a real, ‘normal’ conversation.

Through all this, we will lose the emotional safety of school as well. The warmth and sense of care teachers used to create will be replaced by a cold, sterile environment. The joy and laughter that filled the campus during lunch break will be replaced by impersonal conversations in a half-empty campus, friends split into different cohorts.

COVID-19 can and will thrive in school. Research indicates that children have higher resilience to COVID-19 and are thus unlikely to become sick due to the virus. School officials have cited such research in their school reopening plans in hopes of making us feel ‘safe.’ However, they overlooked a key issue: students, including me, can still contract the virus and spread it to teachers and staff as well as their grandparents and other older members of society. Students and teachers with underlying conditions are especially at risk. The thought that I could be responsible for someone’s sickness or worse, death, is the biggest reason why I do not want our school to reopen.

The social-distancing expectations and mask requirements are unrealistic, and experts like pediatrician and molecular virologist Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, agree. As the masks come off and the six-feet distancing rules are ignored, COVID-19 cases and, consequently, deaths will increase. Hence, I urge schools to remain closed throughout fall 2020.