Monday 28 September 2020

Do you want schools to open? Then just wear that mask!

This column first appeared on Malta Today

I have tried to stay out of the debate about whether schools should re-open or not, because it is such a highly personal dilemma.  If I were to be very honest, I am immensely relieved that I do not have to make such an important decision about what to do.

I am not a parent of children who are of school-age or who are attending a post-secondary institution, nor am I an educator.  However, the more I have thought about it, and the more I listen to parents and teachers and read their comments, the more I realise that this crucial turning point will not simply affect those directly involved, but it will have a domino effect on society as a whole. Just to mention a few examples: employers may have staff who won’t be available if their children have online learning, employees may have to choose between their job and their children’s schooling, while grandparents will have to once again isolate from their grandchildren if school re-opens.

This is why when some (understandably anxious) parents and teachers lash out angrily and say, “if you don’t have children/have never taught in a classroom” you have no right to talk!” I take a step back and let them vent.  2020 has not been an easy year for anyone, but in my view, at the top of that list (along with health care professionals and other front liners), one must also place those involved directly in education, whether it is those who work in this profession, the parents/grandparents who have had to become ad hoc “teaching assistants”, or the children and students themselves.  The stress of adapting to online learning has been enormous on all fronts. 

While those in post-secondary education have also been thrown into a tailspin because of their ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, as well as university exams, it is the children still in their formative years who are of greatest concern to educational experts because they are at risk of falling through the safety net which school provided, and may end up being ‘lost’.  We might assume that an individual PC and an internet connection or Wifi is a given for children in all households, but we assume wrongly. Many households are made up of a number of siblings, cramped living conditions with little privacy, and a lack of disposable income which might mean that a computer has to be shared.  We might assume that each child has at least one parent who is computer literate, or even literate when it comes to basic reading, writing and arithmetic (let alone other subjects) , but again, we assume wrongly.  We might assume that each child lives in a home where education is given high priority, but again, that is a very facile, wrong assumption. 

I carried out a very informal straw poll on Facebook, and it is clear that parents and educators are split roughly down the middle on this issue.  However, as unscientific as my little survey was, it was interesting to note that parents with primary school age children are those who are advocating the most for schools to re-open, probably because the pressure and aggravation of making this age group sit still to follow their online lessons during the lockdown became too much to handle.  Meanwhile, the FB group which is lobbying for online learning to continue now stands at almost 3,500 members and their voices are getting louder with each day that the infection rate continues to register a considerable number of cases.   Many of these parents have flatly declared that no matter what the Minister of Education says, they will definitely not be sending their children to school come September.  It is not clear what will happen in this scenario but hopefully, when the protocols are finally announced, common sense will prevail and options will be made avaialble for those who do not feel it is safe to send their children to school just yet. 

However, some parents have not just limited their comments to social media but have been very pro-active. The Malta Association of Parents of State School Students gathered different questions and recommendations made by parents which they forwarded to the Ministry of Education and the health authorities covering a comprehensive list of concerns.  What was interesting about this document is that it represented parents who have diametrically opposed positions, which I believe is the healthiest way forward. What is certainly not healthy is when any attempt at sensible discussion breaks down and reduces itself to hysteria, and the usual political tribalism.  

On the other side of the coin are the educators themselves who, unlike students, will not have a choice in the matter if online learning is not an option, unless they quit their jobs.  Faced by the prospect of different classrooms with numerous students on a daily basis, I certainly do not blame them for being worried that they might become the first to be infected. If they do test positive they risk infecting anyone in their household who is vulnerable, and of course there is the inevitable snowball effect of quarantine which could potentially affect the whole school and the respective households.  As many have pointed out, is all this worth it, when we might have to close schools down again anyway, as has happened in other countries where the rate of infections spiked immediately as soon as schools re-opened?

Way back in March when the outcry to close the schools had become deafening, we knew this day would come when the question of whether to re-open schools would raise its head again.   We have had all summer to come up with solutions and the greatest criticism directed at the Education Ministry is that they have kept everyone in limbo for too long (at the time of writing the protocols have not yet been published). 

One idea which I was told about makes a lot of sense; I’m afraid I do not know who originally suggested it so cannot give them credit but am quoting it verbatim: “This will be a sort of extension to Klabb 3-16. The children of parents who must go to work could attend at certain schools and follow the online lessons from there, under supervision. Kids could be spaced out as much as necessary and supervision does not necessarily need to be teachers, since most of these will be engaged in online lessons.  This covers all the demands and necessities with little preparation necessary.”

On the other hand, some schools have not waited around to be given instructions by the authorities but have taken the bull by the horns. I have seen emails sent by an independent school which have thoroughly gone through all the mitigating measures which will be put into place and how each subject will be handled in clear-cut terms. This is the kind of open communication I like, with no mind-bending language, but with everything laid out clearly and concisely, which means that the parents of children who attend this school are confident they have all the information in order to take the decisions required.

While I was mulling over how to best tackle this topic, a friend forwarded a very interesting article by Chavi Eve Karkowisky, an American physician and a parent to four school-age children. Like everywhere else in the world, the school dilemma is uppermost in her mind and the title of her column in The Atlantic is “What We’ve Stolen from our Kids” . The following paragraph struck a partiuclar chord, and perhaps best encapsulates how I feel about whether schools should re-open or not: “(for children) school is often their entire external world. It is a place where their relationships are not dependent on their parents, where they try and fail and then try and succeed. School is where they make friends and mortal enemies and friends again. School is where my children are not my daughter or son; they are themselves, figuring out who that is every day.”

And even though I am in the enviable position of not having to make this choice, I think that if I had children right now, I would lean more towards the re-opening of schools for this precise reason. Children need to be in school because it gives them specific and unique socialisation experiences which the home environment cannot. As for all those objecting to schools re-opening because of the high number of infections and the high R factor, there are simple things all of us can do to help bring the numbers down, which have been hammered into our heads from the beginning. A lot less socialising, a little more social distancing, constant sanitising and of course, just wear those blessed masks as much as possible.

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