Opinionista Jordan Griffiths 2 July 2020

Tough choices: Reopening of schools forces educators and parents to face a rationality test of their own

In the coming weeks, more children across the country will be returning to school. Some parents who are particularly risk-averse might balk at the idea, but others might not have that choice.

Children will be returning to schools in South Africa in an environment in which Covid-19 cases are drastically increasing. At the moment, the country is averaging over 6,000 positive cases a day. 

There are a lot of nervous people out there who think it makes little sense to fully reopen the economy while transmission of the virus is far from under control. 

However, the reality for the country is that it cannot return to the days of a hard lockdown. The economic impact would simply be too severe and, besides, public support for such an extreme move has long since dissipated.

The economic data from the first quarter of this year indicated a 2% contraction in growth. For the second quarter, when the country went into hard lockdown, it is likely to be far more severe. For a start, unemployment is expected to rise significantly in the months to come. The choices now are limited.

A key indicator of normalcy for many will be the reopening of schools. With this will come a series of choices that both educators and parents will need to confront. 

In a recent article, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde discussed the importance of schools reopening in the province and how his government intended doing so safely in order to protect as many lives as possible. He quotes a finding of the South African Pediatric Association, which is worth emphasising, below

“Children biologically contain SARS-CoV-2 better than adults, are less likely to get sick if infected, have milder disease, are unlikely to die from Covid-19, and are probably less infectious than adults.”

Indeed, the global scientific consensus on the spread of Covid-19 is that children are the lowest risk category. Leaders from around the world are acknowledging this fact as they decide on the best way to ease their own lockdowns. 

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has even gone so far as admitting publicly that the closing of schools and kindergartens may not have been necessary to bring the spread of the virus under control in her country. As Norway reopened its schools, health authorities have indicated that there has not been a significant change in the spread of the virus.

Faced with this information, it is worth breaking down what types of choices parents and educators will need to face in the months to come. For some the choices are limited – many South Africans cannot be optimally economically active if schools stay closed and their children are kept home. They might not be able to travel to their place of employment or even seek new employment as they need to be home with their children. 

Schools are thus critical in that they create an environment where children are cared for while parents can work. Many public schools in the country have feeding programmes which provide students with food during the day, which is of great assistance to poor families and others at risk in the current economic climate. For these parents, there is a desperate need for schools to be opened. Others who are in a stronger economic position are perhaps more flexible in their choices and options.

Would you consider yourself rational? If your answer is yes, then your decisions and views on each of these scenarios should be consistent. Your reaction should be the same, shouldn’t it? Will you remember that there is a scientific consensus that children are the lowest risk in relation to Covid-19? 

However, it is likely that in the coming weeks, regardless of circumstance, parents are going to face very similar scenarios in relation to their children’s safety. The challenge is, faced with the evidence that children are the lowest risk category in terms of fatalities and transmitting the virus, what then becomes rational?

As schools have gradually opened and some learners have returned to class, there have been reported cases of children and teachers being infected. The response in these schools has been to shut down for a few days and commit to deep cleaning. While such a response might seem the best approach, is it rational or even reasonable? This is a question that is difficult to confront but it will need to be answered because, at some levels, schools will need to operate in the face of Covid-19. Schools will simply not be able to continuously open and close as infections are identified.

A good way perhaps to help guide one in thinking through these choices is through a simple thought experiment of different scenarios. 

Let’s assume that as a parent you send your child to school in the coming weeks. In the week that your child returns to the school, a case of Covid-19 is confirmed in another child who is in a different class and grade to yours. What would your response be? Would you want the school to close down totally for a few days? In scenario two, assume that the infected child is in your child’s class, he sits next to your child, what do you feel the school should do? Or perhaps in scenario three, the infected child is, in fact, your child. Again, what do you feel is the appropriate action?

Would you consider yourself rational? If your answer is yes, then your decisions and views on each of these scenarios should be consistent. Your reaction should be the same, shouldn’t it? Will you remember that there is a scientific consensus that children are the lowest risk in relation to Covid-19? 

If schools reach a point where they indicate that they need to stay open regardless, and that those who are sick must simply stay home and self-isolate, would you accept this? It raises interesting questions on how people perceive risk in relation to themselves, their families and others. For people who are particularly risk-averse, they may immediately pull their children out of the schools. Others may simply not have this choice.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman conducts a number of thought experiments to test whether the notion that humans behave rationally is consistent. His evidence indicates that in many cases individuals can behave deeply irrationally when confronted with information that is overwhelming, confusing or difficult to understand.

This article has merely attempted to present the reader with scenarios that will likely play out in the future in relation to the reopening of schools. It isn’t so much an attempt to provide answers, but merely to provoke further questions on how individuals should approach thinking about their safety and that of their children. DM

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