OPINION: Opening schools was a premature and inattentive decision

A laptop, binder, pencils, and books sit on a blue desk.
Leah Voudouri PO ’24 argues that schools are opening too early and are unprepared to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

Fall marks the beginning of another school year for many people around the world. Students are preparing by gathering a list of necessary school supplies: pencils, pens, notebooks and now, a crucial new item — a mask.

On top of the mask requirement, several other instructions have been sent to K-12 schools in the United States regarding safe reopenings. Despite these efforts, most reports remain vague and cannot be applied to all counties due to different infection rates. For this reason, I believe that the decision to open schools worldwide was rushed, and officials did not take into account what effect it would have on certain populations.

During these unprecedented times, educational institutions have been closed abruptly and forced to shut down most operations. UNESCO estimated that around 91.3 percent of students were not in school during March 2020. That seems rational, as schools involve the gathering of hundreds of students and could prove to be hotspots for the virus.

However, many officials insisted that schools must reopen because the virus is simply not going away any time soon — so we might as well proceed.

Following those statements, the World Health Organization provided some guidelines that extend to school administrators, faculty, students and family members regarding the cautious functioning of schools. 

I decided to dig deeper into this topic in order to see how different governments are handling the situation. Countries such as Germany have suggested the mandatory use of masks throughout school days. Niki Kerameus, the Greek minister of education, decided on the postponement of school openings for a week but stated that free masks and water bottles would be administered to students as an extra health protocol. 

The Greek public was generally more receptive, seeing that parents could now avoid the burden of extra costs for this school year. However, the masks turned out to be a disappointment. Manufacturers supplied the students with masks twice the normal size, which proved to be not only uncomfortable, but also ineffective. 

After hearing about these concerning events in my own country, it dawned on me that the conditions might not be ideal for the reopening of schools. Some in Kaisariani and Petroupoli — two suburbs in Greece — are already shutting down after just three days of in-person classes.

One of the instructions from officials is to close schools when a student or teacher tests positive. On one hand, this sudden shutdown might find teachers unprepared. If they arranged for a semester that would be conducted completely in person, it would not be easy to instantly switch all of their education plans to an online platform.

On the other hand, students might not have the resources to respond to online learning. Had they known earlier, they would have had more time to find access to resources. 

The need for students to stay at home without prior notice also poses a difficulty to working parents. Someone needs to stay at home and watch the little ones. It might not be simple to obtain a leave of absence in some workplaces, and not everyone has other family members to look after their children. 

Thus, the inevitable shutting down of schools in the middle of the semester proves to be challenging for everybody involved, so a hasty reopening should be avoided.

As far as the other guidelines go, it would require a lot of money just to ensure that all schools have a large enough supply of cleaning products for sanitization throughout the day. Similarly, the reduction of class sizes implies the creation of more sections and thus the employment of more teachers.

Even though hiring more teachers would increase the safety of the students and decrease unemployment at the same time, some districts just do not have the necessary budget to meet the requirements suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a secure return to schools cannot be guaranteed.

Even more importantly, we should take a step back from all these advanced countries and look at developing countries, while keeping in mind that COVID-19 mostly critically affects older age groups from 65 years and above.

According to data from the United Nations, more than 10 percent of elderly people live with people under 20 years old in African countries, compared to the 1 percent in European countries. This increases the chance of groups at risk contracting COVID-19, because students can get infected at school and then transmit the virus to elders at their home.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to overlook the importance of schools. After all, they create a safe environment for learning, help children develop social skills and can provide helpful resources for mental and physical health improvement. But they should not open before safety is assured for all faculty, students and families. 

Until then, administrators should come up with better strategies for handling the emergence of COVID-19 infections in schools, and governments should work on ensuring funding so as to accommodate schools with their openings. Also, it is pivotal to secure equitable online education for all kids, not just a privileged few.

As students, we must take all these events into consideration before advocating for the reopening of schools. Everyone wants to return to campus — especially we first-years who have never even been there — but it is important to protect everyone at risk first. 

Leah Voudouri PO ’24 is from Thessaloniki, Greece. Currently, she is interested in discovering new books and often pays visits to book bazaars in order to find vintage editions.

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