- Weighing the risks of being exposed to virus if they do and the loss of quality education if they don’t
For the past few months most academic institutions nationwide have been conducting online lessons, while parents turned into teachers and children coped with the new normal. But, what happens after summer when school and colleges are scheduled to start their new academic sessions? With the uncertainty about how the Covid-19 pandemic will unfold, with an expected resurgence in the fall, will parents, students and education institutions be willing to take the chance of opening, or will they prefer to continue with remote education?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in an interview with CNN said that keeping the schools closed through fall may be ‘a bit of a reach’. Accentuating the necessity to refrain from ‘generalizing’ the spread of Covid-19 across America in a ‘unidimensional’ way without understanding that each state has its own level of viral activity, Dr. Fauci told CNN that how and if schools reopen will have to be predicated on a study of the pros and cons specific to the area in discussion.
Most institutions recognize the need to open up, not just for academic, but also for economic and social reasons. Biology teacher and high school curriculum advisor at a NJ Charter School, Maya Ghosh is clear headed about the impact school closures have had on academic learning, especially for students of ESL (English as a Second Language), special education and those dependent on the school meal plans, as they are unable to receive the same quality education at home as they get in in-person classes.
“This has been particularly challenging for children in single parent homes, parents running multiple jobs simultaneously and where the parents are essential workers and hence unable to continuously oversee the child,” she says. In addition, children, especially older ones have missed social interactions with friends. “Depression, anxiety and stress are a natural fallout of this desolation,” Ghosh observes.
Risk of Exposure v Convenience
With no vaccine in sight, there is the big question amongst parents if they even want to send their kids back to school. For many parents no matter how many precautions the school takes, there is always the risk of exposure, especially for the smaller kids who need constant supervision. If however, schools do reopen, most parents will be left with little choice but to send their children back. This dilemma is specially pressing in families where both mother and father work full time and balancing work and their child’s needs becomes difficult.
The risk of exposure to elders in the family and for senior teachers higher in the risk chain cannot be ignored either. Anubha Prakash, a business owner from San Francisco, California, along with many who echo her fear, is worried for the welfare of her aging in-laws who live with them, particularly her father-in-law who is a heart patient.
The one reality we are all beginning to absorb is the unfading nature of this crisis for the next couple of years. How long then, is it expedient to keep our kids away from a proper, structured way of education? Education that is not only theoretical but subjective and self-exploratory in its nature too. Field trips, real life experiences, social interactions with friends away from technology and gadgets are valuable cognitive lessons that children have missed out these past months.
Richa Sonawane, a civil engineer from Overland Park, Kansas believes in equipping children with the necessary where-with- all to make them more self-reliant. “We have to learn to live with it. There is no other way than to teach them the importance of social distancing, hand sanitation and wearing masks. If they can be made to do follow these guidelines, I don’t think opening schools should be so hard,” she says.
Onus on Educational Institutions?
With the increased onus on students to act with caution, educational institutions too will need to be extra vigilant, being accountable to families for the safety of their wards. Reena Malhotra, a mathematics instructor from Princeton, New Jersey, whose daughter is set to join Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire this fall, is confident that the institute will take all appropriate measures as their own reputation, public standing and image is also at stake in case health standards are not met and things go wrong. “No institution would want to risk that,” Malhotra remarks.
Following Dr. Fauci’s notice to the Senate Panel that “suffering and death” could result if states move too quickly to reopen schools and businesses, California State University in a far-reaching announcement called for online instruction across its 23 campuses, cancelling all in-campus classes for this fall. According to news reports, other universities like Purdue University, Texas A&M University, University of Notre Dame and colleges in states like Florida, New Hampshire and Arizona, however, plan to reopen their doors by fall. Others like University of South Carolina, Rice and Creighton universities are aiming at an early end of term by Thanksgiving, foreseeing a possible resurgence.
West Virginia University President E. Gordon told the New York Times that students don’t want to wait for a vaccine and the school cannot afford to. To him, keeping the school closed is not a feasible option — economically, socially or educationally. Travel restrictions across the globe have also adversely affected the number of foreign students who pay full tuition fees and help keep the universities financially stable and enable financial aid to Americans. To hang on to the foreign students, universities such as Indiana University have even waived enrollment deposit and made housing application fees refundable. Even with such major incentives, the American Council on Education has projected a 25 percent drop in international enrollment this year, the New York Times reported.
College goers are reacting differently to the changed milieu. What is usually a time for excited plans about their life in college, is now clouded by uncertainty of whether they will even have a normal year.
Meghna Mahajan is a final year student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and as much as her mother, Shilpa Mahajan would like for her to continue with her online classes, she is reluctant to ‘miss out’ on the last days of her student life and would like to go back to the university campus. College is not just about the education imparted in the classroom. It is so much more about the bonds you make outside of it — friendships, the extracurriculars, sports, among others, that remote learning cannot fulfill. Some students are on the threshold, unable to decide if they should take a ‘gap year’ and go back to college next year.
Many students even recognize the futility of online classes against the colossal university fees that they have to pay. “We are not paying so much just to sit at home and study,” many say. While many students say they want a holistic college experience, there are others like Ishita Malhotra of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who prefer to wait it out till things normalize and prefer remote learning.
Waiting for Herd Immunity
There has been a lot of talk around ‘herd immunity’, the threshold at which the virus stops spreading, a situation achieved where 60 to 80 percent of the population contracts the virus and develops resistance. But, as epidemiologists have argued, we are far from achieving that number and neither are we ready.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes the impulse of educational institutions to open in the next academic session. Their guidelines ask for colleges to work with state and local officials to create plans to reopen since the degree of infection varies in communities.
But, according to the CDC, there are some suggested measures that institutions should follow to minimize the risk of spread. Practices such as smaller class sizes, alternating between morning and evening classes, closing common spaces and installing physical barriers like plastic flexible shields between sinks in bathrooms, create distances between children on buses, foregoing the communal eating in cafeterias are some measures among many schools may need to implement.
Shubhra Bansal, an associate professor at University of Nevada suggests distancing work benches at the recommended 6 ft, no recess and a mix of in-class and remote learning where 50 percent students attend in-class and the other 50 percent are remote alternate days. Even with these initiatives, she understands that without a vaccine, infections will continue to be a threat.