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No ‘right’ answer on schools reopening

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There is a school of thought that we must find a balance between protecting people from Covid-19 and from the serious damage to our economy that will occur as a result of people not working and business closure.

Let's be honest; many people may take the view that Donald Trump has propagated, as it seems he clearly has a philosophy that the economy of the United States is more important than the number of lives that will be lost if their social-distancing measures and business closures continue.

He makes the point that with serious damage to the economy and loss of jobs, there will be also a significant loss of life as a result of stress, suicide and an increase in violent crime as people become desperate because they have no money.

There can be no doubt that there are many people in Bermuda, politicians included, that share this view, although they may be able to express it more euphemistically than the US president does.

Behind closed doors, there are those who would take a view that mostly older people are impacted, that older people get sick and die, and that consequently the balance is to not cause such extreme damage to the economy that it is detrimental to the majority of people for years to come.

This harsh philosophy may actually resonate on a logical level until it becomes a question of them making the choice about their elderly loved one being the proverbial sacrificial lamb!

As Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, said “You wanna choose?”

I am of the view that the Premier and the Government have done an outstanding job in addressing this crisis, and I have supported effectively every element of the measures that have been put in place and the plan for a phased approach to reopening. The Bermuda people thus far have risen to the occasion brilliantly with courage and support for one another.

One of the most significant dilemmas for me and many, I believe, remains what to do with the school system?

The scientific evidence clearly indicates that when it comes to social gatherings, a school is probably one of the worst places for the risk of transmission of a virus. The use of water fountains, bathrooms and children continuously moving from place to place in proximity to one another is hardly conducive to strict hygiene!

Playing on the playground equipment and generally touching one another on a regular basis without the concept or restriction that most adults would apply is a potential recipe for disaster, as concerned disease specialists have expressed.

An asymptomatic child who is infected by at home a parent or grandparent whom Mommy or Daddy has visited in the nursing home goes to school and passes the virus on to other students, who then take it home to their parents — and so on. This is a real and obvious risk with regard to the spread of the virus and the fact of the matter is that in Bermuda our schools on a daily basis involve the largest social gathering of “people” in the country and we are one of the most densely populated places in the world!

It is even more disconcerting now, as it is apparent that children are beginning to suffer from some form of infection from the virus and there have been even tragically a small number of deaths!

One thing for sure, the virus seems to attack the vulnerable, and many perfectly normal children suffer from asthma or other common ailments that improve with age.

The flipside of the concern of children not being at school is that there are a number of homes where it is not possible to engage in a full-time online learning programme and that children are at greater risk for increased episodes of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect. Such is the nature of what confinement will aggravate as a result of stress and economic problems for families.

The challenge is how do we design an education system that delivers effective learning while protecting staff and students? Organising to protect students and staff would necessarily involve strict social-distancing — explain that to a six-year-old! — combined with frequent handwashing or sanitiser use and wearing of masks.

Some would argue that masks offer limited protection, but they are certainly a visual reminder that provide a behavioural boost for hygiene measures to be followed in any reopening plan. Getting kids to keep them on and teachers speaking coherently is the challenge.

The number of students present in different spaces would need to be reduced by specifying methods of circulation in any establishment. Classrooms would need to be reorganised to establish the space between students and breaks, and lunch times likely would have to be staggered.

If teachers move between classrooms instead of students, circulation around buildings may be able to be reduced and the school week could also be shortened with different groups of students attending on different days throughout the week. School transport would certainly need to be reorganised and addressed.

Consideration, perhaps, should be given to a “hybrid approach” where those children who are able to continue working online at home should for the immediate future continue to do so, and it is only in instances where families cannot support this type of learning that children should return to school.

Given that it will be most likely necessary to reorganise school and home, there is already a need to prepare for hybrid-teaching arrangements. This will mean thinking more often about the individual needs of pupils to help reduce inequalities.

When it comes to considering the reopening of our schools, there needs to be an evidence and practice-based reopening plan drawing on all available research and experiential global evidence, which can help to implement the most suitable solutions for Bermuda and which may also empower people to understand and act effectively within the confines of the present situation.

It will be essential to review carefully the ways of working between sectors and operating around schools, and consolidating knowledge from various sources to develop decision-making that is the most appropriate for Bermuda. Systematic monitoring and dedicated research is needed to limit educational disruption as much as possible and to promote health for all.

It is difficult to draw a clear conclusion at this stage as to what is best, but as a parent I am not at this stage comfortable with the thought of my two younger children returning to the school environment before the end of this school year. However, I remain optimistic for the potential of a return to school in the autumn with the right system and measures in place, which must have regard for the potential of a predicted second spike in the virus later in the year.

How we address the school question is one of the most significant elements to tackling the challenge of Covid-19, both in the interest of health and in balancing the impact of the damage being caused to the economy and the education of our children.

I doubt there is a “right” answer; we just need to ensure we find the best solution possible, with balance and always with consideration for the health and safety of our people. Young and old.

Mark Pettingill is a former attorney-general, former independent MP and the father of a ten-year-old and eight-year-old in the Bermuda school system

Try explaining strict social-distancing to a six-year-old: a valid case can be made that the restrictions that many adults have been unable adhere to, especially at the beginning of Phase 1, are unrealistic for our young (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Mark Pettingill is a former attorney-general, former independent MP and the father of a ten-year-old and eight-year-old in the Bermuda school system (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published May 19, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated May 19, 2020 at 8:59 am)

No ‘right’ answer on schools reopening

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