Saturday, August 15, 2020

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Last week’s Jewish Link included very strongly worded commentaries by Jeffrey Rubin (“Regarding School Closing This Fall,” July 23, 2020) and Rabbi Wallace Greene (“The Ethics of Opening Schools,” July 23, 2020) arguing that no child should go back to school in the fall. While one can understand the sentiment that no risk to human life should be taken whatsoever, I don’t think my 6-year-old, surrounded by masked teachers and plexiglass, is a threat to anyone’s life.

In the same issue of The Jewish Link, Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim, in his article “Tisha B’Av: Successfully Battling the Yetzer Hara,” very aptly quoted the famous midrash about the fish requiring water to live. As in the midrash, when have Jews said anything other than that education of our children is also paramount to life itself?

Rabbi Greene, arguing that all schools must categorically remain closed, says “are we willing to play Russian roulette with our children... it is an exponential hazard.” In the game of Russian roulette, one out of every six people die. I doubt Rabbi Greene literally means that in every class of 24 preschoolers, four of them will die. In fact, the death rate of healthy 6-year-olds from COVID-19 is zero. It is very easy to let our fears get the better of us, but we must not let hyperbolic comparisons be a reason to tell others they have to be machmir on isolation and meykel on education.


Building out the argument against sending children to school, Rabbi Greene then asks, “Will every school hew a fixed set of guidelines?” Yes, of course! This is state-mandated. My children’s elementary school has a very long list of guidelines made with health experts and rebbeim that require temperature checks, plexiglass at every seat, staggered drop-offs, separate recess times, and so on. Every yeshiva can and should look to Yeshiva Bais Hillel’s model to educate our children fully every single day of the school year without compromising the education or health of anyone. The school will be safer from the spread of disease, in my opinion, than it ever was not withstanding the high financial cost of doing so.

Rubin makes comparisons to the 1918 influenza pandemic, arguing that “schools are less prepared” because in 1918 it was “in the middle of the Progressive Era” aimed to help “working-class families become healthier and wealthier,” including putting school nurses into schools. I frankly do not understand an argument that a time period referred to by Gertrude Stein as “The Lost Generation” was better off because attempts started to be made to improve the situation. What is the comparison? In 2020, New Jersey requires licensed school nurses by state mandate, life expectancy is more thirty (30!) years longer than in 1917 (the year before the flu breakout), and neither Remdesivir or even antibiotics were known yet. No one is starving today, and access to healthy nutrition, housing and even direct monetary payments for the poor have been available since 1968. The FDA was only formed in 1908, while snake oil and cocaine were literally still considered medicines of general applicability, root beer was poison, and asbestos and lead paint were the norm. Please add me to the list of people for whom the prior article arguing to the contrary states “I have yet to find anyone who agrees with me.”

Rubin further appears to argue that unless you are a “learning and behavioral specialist” you are not allowed to decide what is best for your children. Schools did an excellent job with “distance learning” and the tools at their disposal on short notice. Can we seriously argue that they learned as much or as well and that the minds of young children developed as well as they could have if they were in school rather than have an hour here or there by video?

Should the above not be considered self-evident, my children do, in fact, have an expert at being a mother who also doubles as an expert in trauma and anxiety, among other specialities. Heather Feigin, LCSW’s article published in The Jewish Link on June 18, 2020, “The Forgotten Children of the Pandemic,” is rife with examples of what she has seen in her practice with children and parents during their time away from school. (Here is a link for anyone who has not yet had the chance to read it: https://tinyurl.com/y3kfpzhe.) We can also look to medical authorities who, when asked by CNBC if they were sending their own children back to school, answered in the affirmative. This includes Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, Dr. John Brownstein, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston Children’s hospital, and Dr. Dan Buckland, an emergency medicine doctor at Duke University.

While there are certainly learned people who will disagree about the safety of sending their own children back to school, it is not only permissible under New Jersey law, it is encouraged by the same governor who imposed the restrictions in the first place, and even more encouraged by the mara d’atra of many yeshivot including that of my children. Editorialists can editorialize, but this is not 1918 and these are my children. My children will go to school.

Michael (Moshe) Feigin