July 18, 2024
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What If Schools Can’t Open This Fall?

A very disturbing article was published in The Washington Post on June 30, entitled “There Is No Safe Way to Reopen Colleges This Fall.” The article was written by three public health researchers who also teach. Their conclusion is that reopening colleges during a pandemic is too dangerous. The same message might also apply to our high schools and even our elementary schools. Medical professionals are advising us that we are still in the midst of a national and worldwide pandemic with a second wave heavy upon us, although New Jersey is doing comparatively well.

Many of the ideas being floated to open schools safely could provide more flexibility in the future. However, these solutions all assume that it is possible to reopen safely this fall. So far, safely opening in the fall is not possible according to these researchers. If students are returned to school for face-to-face instruction, the risk of significant COVID-19 transmission will be unmanageably and unavoidably high.

Schools are weighing many different options. Split sessions, alternate days, remote learning and limited class size are among some of the ideas being tossed about. Most reopening efforts assume that some degree of protection is conferred by students’ younger age. The article goes on to deflate the idea that young people are immune from COVID-19 and that many factors combine to make reopening in the fall a bad idea. Add to this the difficulty of teaching while wearing a mask and staying with the same class all day every day.

Granted this article is focused on the college experience and whether universities can stop transmission on campus. During a respiratory epidemic we should avoid unnecessary congregation. Colleges are “a dense network of highly connected, clustered settings with intense social contact; students meet in dorms, classrooms and other common spaces. Diminishing connectivity through physical distancing can’t eliminate long chains of transmission. Cutting a select few environments from the college experience as a “compromise” (e.g., distanced on-campus housing or repurposing dining halls as carryout) might distance students from each other, but probably not enough to stop the spread. A recent study on data from Cornell University showed even without the effect of dormitories, shared food facilities, and extracurricular activities, physical classes create fertile conditions for disease transmission on their own.”

The article goes on to elaborate based on current research why pre-symptomatic testing, tracing and other approaches are not the answer. My intention is not to review the medical issues nor to determine educational and health policy. My concern is for the viability of our institutions. No matter which strategy or approach our schools utilize in order to open in the fall there will be a diminution of face-to-face instructional time. We cannot make up the educational deficits of the spring semester. Our students will fall further behind if a version of this Zoom instruction continues. What has been lost cannot be made up. Over and above a curtailed educational experience is the financial component. Teachers and administrators still have to be paid. Additional costs and personnel for disinfecting will add to the budget. Safe transportation has to be factored in. Parents might well ask why they are paying full tuition for a scaled-down education with no extra-curricular activities or team sports. School operational expenses remain the same even under the new normal conditions but parents might balk at a having to shoulder full tuition for a partial educational experience.

On the college level, if classes will be virtual, why pay steep tuitions to YU or Touro, or even the Ivy League schools, when Queens College or Rutgers offers the same classes for a lot less? I don’t have good answers to these questions. I do know that our children’s health and welfare should not be based on a strictly financial calculus. Limudei kodesh is an important factor, especially learning to read Hebrew and to daven.

Health and safety is our No. 1 priority. The CDC has issued guidelines for schools. I hope that the means can be found to open safely in the fall in a way that will still provide quality education while safeguarding our children’s well-being. The onus is on the schools to make the right decisions, and parents need to meet them half way.


Rabbi Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator.

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