COVID-19 Special Report

Reopening Schools: Measured Risk or Fateful Folly

After months of home schooling and online classes, it is perhaps inevitable that parents, students, educators and legislators are now taking the definitive steps to reopen our brick-and-mortar schools again. As the new academic year quickly approaches, and COVID-19 seems to be dissipating for large swaths of the world, there may seem no better time than the present to reinvigorate these efforts.

Yet, a growing chorus of health professionals and educators are voicing their opposition to an early reopening. They contend that in spite of restrictions and attempts at social distancing, the reopening of schools maybe a massive step backwards in fighting this pandemic. Ultimately, the fear is that a rash reopening might take our schools, and possibly our societies at large back too the days of exponential viral spread that we’ve all become so tragically familiar with.

It’s worth considering what this decision comes down to. There have been gross oversimplifications much publicized in the media, but the argument to open or close our schools is a profoundly challenging question to answer.

On one side, keeping our schools closed may offer some protection towards this apparently declining pandemic. However, recent studies assessing the mental health of students have identified rapidly growing depression as well as social isolation disorders amongst wide spectrums of students. Alarmingly, this was despite access to technology or socioeconomic status – suggesting we may have no real means of combatting this, without fundamentally restructuring our current ‘socially-distancing’ education paradigm. Economists are also keen to point out that parents staying home to care for children during the day may be partly to blame for the emerging unemployment and economic crisis that will be with us well after the last cases of COVID have been treated.

The arguments in favor of keeping schools closed is generally less tangible to most people, and perhaps it is for this reason that there is such growing fervor to bring our children back to classes. The simplest and indeed most prescient argument is that reopening our schools may offer the coronavirus a perfect opportunity to spread from person to person once more. Schools have long been called petri dishes and with classrooms around the world housing dozens of children in an enclosed space, that epithet seems especially poignant at this time.

The argument then seems like balancing some abstract risk of contracting an intangible pathogen against the very real drawbacks against our bank accounts and mental health – both of which we can see and feel and every day. Is it any wonder then that we want our kids back in their classrooms?

As easy as it is to define this decision as one over the other, it’s worth remembering that the risks are not exactly equal. Risking the re-emergence of COVID-19 will not only force the re closing of our schools , but will likely reverse the hard fought progress we’ve gained over these many months. In other words, we are risking a return to the very circumstances we are seeking to avoid by the act of opening our schools again.

As educators, we often advise her students to think before they act. The question to reopen seems like an ideal example of not only what we think, but the perspective we use to frame these questions can help redefine the conclusions we come to . Ultimately, reopening our schools in regions with baseline or escalating COVID cases maybe a fateful folly which we will only come to regret.