Their answers are often entertaining and sometimes insightful, but not usually surprising. Some of the recent ones:
I made two best friends.
There’s a girl that pinches me every day at recess.
Did you know snails have more teeth than any other animal?
But on that day, when my 9-year-old told me he “got the best spot,” he wasn’t talking about his seat at the lunch table or a shady area he found during recess. He was telling me how his class participated in a school safety drill, the kind that is designed to teach students where to hide if a “bad person” with a gun should enter the building.
He was explaining how he and his classmates clustered in a corner that was out of view from the door’s window and quietly sat there together, waiting. The “best spot,” it turns out, was in between a bookshelf and a stack of plastic shields that, when put to use, are intended to protect students from the specks of spittle that can carry the coronavirus.
My son didn’t sound alarmed as he told me this, and I was careful not to say anything that would give him reason to worry. He, like many children in the Washington region, just returned to school in the past month after being told for a year and a half that it was unsafe for them to go.
When he sits in class, I want him to feel safe. I want him to only have to worry about schoolwork and friendships.
Still, it was hard to shake that image of a little boy, my boy, hiding from an imagined gunman next to plastic shields intended to protect children from a deadly virus. To me, that single scene seemed to capture all at once the dangers elementary school students face right now and why many parents feel that clutch of anxiety as they send their children to school each day.
Those parents’ mornings, if like mine, start by answering a series of questions through their phones or computers:
Does your student have a fever (100.4°F or higher) or a sense of having a fever?
Does your student have a new cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing that cannot be attributed to another health condition?
Has your student had close contact (within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more cumulative outside of the classroom or within 3 feet for 15 minutes within the classroom) with someone in the past 14 days with suspected or confirmed covid-19?
And their evenings, if like mine, involve hearing about which kids tend to not keep their masks on, which classmates didn’t come to class that day and which classmates did come but then had to be sent home.
With all those daily reminders of why parents with children too young to get vaccinated can’t yet exhale, I hadn’t even considered that school safety drills would occur this year.
But after my son brought it up, and an email from the school confirmed it, I felt angry. Not at my children’s school (I know they are doing their best to keep students safe). I felt angry that we’ve placed children too young to get the vaccine in that position
We are in a pandemic that calls for physical distancing, and yet children are still squeezing together for school safety drills. They are being told to wear masks for seven hours and not get too close to friends but also to huddle when ordered, so that they know what to do if bullets start flying through their classroom windows.
And they are being told that because we as a country haven’t been able to bring gun violence or the spread of the virus under control.
Right now, students stand at the center of two issues that have officials concerned: The delta variant of the virus and other respiratory illnesses are causing beds to fill at children’s hospitals, and school shooting experts have warned that the mental health challenges for young people that were exacerbated by the pandemic could create a “powder keg effect” now that students are back in schools. Already, the school year has seen shootings. On Monday, one at a school in Newport News, Va., left two students injured.
So, what should school systems do?
Should they keep asking children to take safety measures against the virus but then cluster together for drills? Should they enforce mask-wearing but put drills on hold for a while? Or should they do something else entirely?
Instead of having that conversation with myself in my head, I reached out to Ken Trump, a school safety expert who has done consulting work with school systems in the Washington region.
Some school systems are dusting off safety protocols they haven’t used in about two years, he said, and as they do that, they should be having conversations about what’s reasonable.
“It just doesn’t make sense to say, ‘We’re going to try to follow social distancing’ and also say ‘For the next three minutes we’re going to gather in a corner,’ ” he said.
Schools don’t have to conduct full drills, he said. They can verbally and visually walk students through what to do during an emergency.
The coronavirus has raised unique concerns when it comes to safety drills, but conversations about their place in schools were happening even before the pandemic. Mental health experts have expressed concerns about the potential they hold to cause psychological harm to students and staff members.
Scott Poland, a psychologist and an expert on school safety, said school nurses and psychologists should be involved in the planning of any drills “especially during a pandemic.” He also expressed hope that this school year would see less-frequent drills or those drills take a different form.
“I’m always really concerned that we’re scaring children,” he said, “especially young children, with the frequency and intensity of these drills.”
My son hasn’t mentioned the drill since that day, and I hope that means he hasn’t thought about it.
I also hope school officials across the country are thinking more about those drills and considering what, for the moment we’re in, makes sense.
Parents, as it is, already have enough to worry about.
Not long after that drill, as we drove away from the school, my 7-year-old told me that he had to take a shower as soon as he got home. His teacher told the whole class to do that, he said, after three of his classmates were sent home sick.
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