Our Pandemic Angels*: A Note on Re-opening Schools Too Soon

I think some basic truths need to be faced squarely as we struggle with how to keep our schools open in the midst of a lethal pandemic. Before I begin, I should make my position quite clear: I am not a parent. My experience with children is partly from my own memories and partly from working as an educator for over 15 years. In that capacity I met whip smart kids who were only four or five years old. In general, I think most people (and maybe especially parents) tend to seriously underestimate how much even very young children can understand and how deeply they feel what is going on around them.  

To start with, I grew up without younger siblings—or any young neighbors. My parents treated me as an adult—perhaps hoping that would make me become one. No baby talk or other nonsense. In my interactions with young children, I have followed the same path. It is remarkable how well most children respond to be taken seriously. Children are also remarkably sensitive to what is going on around them—even if they don’t talk about it or show it. I have vivid memories from as early as age two or three. One of the most vivid of these is sitting on the floor of our living room and watching the funeral of JFK—I would have been about 3 ½ years old. I can think of only one reason that memory is so firmly fixed. It is because (like many other Americans) my parents were so deeply traumatized by Kennedy’s assassination. Likewise, I was 9 in 1968. I remember the deaths of MLK and Robert Kennedy because grownups around me found them so tragic. Before that day, I had never seen a teacher cry in class.

When I was young, my father often took me on small errands around town. We must have gone to the post office many times. I only vividly remember one time. I waited in the car while he got the mail. When he came back, I knew something was wrong. He had a letter from Germany. It was white, with a black border and a small black cross. It was the news that his father had died. He didn’t cry or say very much, but I knew that something very sad had happened. He had not seen his father since the early 1940s. My grandfather lived behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. Since the war ended, my father had never been able to go back home.

My point is pretty simple and undeniable—children are highly sensitive to what is going around them—and they can retain those memories for the rest of their lives.

Now think for a moment what young people have seen around them for the last 5 months. Many have parents who have lost jobs. There are constant reports of rising death tolls. Their schools have closed, and they are distanced from their friends. There are no more sports. Their parents’ routines have changed, and they may be angry and depressed. Everyone is wearing masks. The streets are empty. All this is in response to an invisible danger—the classic bogeyman of childhood nightmares and phobias. Now in the midst of all this, you are told to go back to school! The adults say it is “safe” but every change at your school, in the very structure of the rooms, the seating plans the schedule and the new rules says something different—there is still danger. I can imagine how confusing and disorienting that would be for a child. Do your parents really love you?

If schools reopen, there is a whole chain of events that we know will happen. It’s not speculation or guesswork. We know that if tens of millions of children go back to school, millions will get the virus. Their symptoms may be mild…but not always. We know they will come home and transmit the virus to their parents and other family. From those millions of new cases we can expect 20-30% to get seriously ill. Many of these may have serious lasting health effects.  Of the rest, it is safe to predict that tens of thousands will die.

So, we can expect tens of thousands of children to have the experience of being involved in the deaths of family and loved ones. Imagine that as a child you were walking home from school and you found a shining little gun in the weeds. It is quite an exciting find. You bring it home and set it down with your books. You need to use the bathroom. Meanwhile, your beloved older brother comes along and picks up the gun. It goes off and he is killed. It is not exactly your fault, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t have happened except for you. Your parents love and forgive you, but things are never really the same. It is the kind of thing you can never get over. It is the kind of thing that will be the experience of many, many, children if we re-open schools before we have a handle on this pandemic.

As far as I can tell, the pressure to re-open schools immediately comes mostly from a single source—President Trump. From there the crap just rolls downhill as his lackeys strive to stay on his good side (which I have never been able to locate). The president is dead wrong about re-opening schools, and if you think about it, he has been dead wrong on almost every decision he has made since he decided to run for president. He didn’t need to run as a racist. He didn’t need to invite or accept Russian interference in our election, he didn’t need to obstruct justice and undermine our rule of law, he didn’t need to start a trade war with China. The list is just too long, but he didn’t need to ignore his intelligence briefings, ignore the pandemic, then downplay and deny it, then press to re-open the economy in a way that has led directly to the recent surge of corona virus cases. These were all choices—and Trump seems to invariably make bad choices. There is no reason to believe that his push to re-open schools is anything more than a phenomenally dangerous, insensitive bad choice based solely on his desire to re-open the wider economy.

We are rapidly approaching a point where we will see 100,000 new corona virus cases every day! I can’t think of anything more reprehensible that a nation could do than throw its children into this kind of jeopardy because they are simply too impatient to wait for a real solution to the pandemic.

*The illustration is a small drawing made by my mother during WWII.

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