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Going Back to School, Some Kids are Not Alright – and Might be Left Behind

When an in-house relative is vulnerable to COVID-19, the entire household faces an agonizing decision on whether it’s time for a child to head back to classes 

Many Israeli parents are worried about sending their children back to school after a teacher in the central city of Rehovot was diagnosed late last week with coronavirus, sending 52 students into isolation.

The event amplified the anxiety in many households as schools reopen: When people in the house are at high risk, do you send a child back to school?

This is particularly true for Gina Shaffer, a Jerusalem mom whose son was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer, three years ago. While he is now doing much better – back at school full-time and playing – the cancer and the subsequent treatment make him more susceptible to infections.

“Because of everything he has experienced, his body isn’t the same as a normal 11-year-old,” Shaffer told The Media Line.

Her son had a health scare in January when what started off as laryngitis turned into the flu, and he ended up being taken to the hospital via ambulance at midnight.

“Other mothers are putting their kids in school and they’re taking their chances. I can’t,” Shaffer said. “This is me. This is my life. Even the memory of the ambulance at 12 o’clock at night that’s at the back of my mind – I can’t even think about what the coronavirus could do to my son.”

She is having, she says, a “hard time” with the pandemic.

“This is what differentiates me as a mother from other regular mothers,” she added. “My journey was already long, but you don’t expect an epidemic to add to the equation.”

Since Shaffer’s son is vulnerable to the coronavirus, she has decided to keep her other kids, all without underlying health conditions, home from school as well until the numbers are low enough that she feels comfortable sending them. This hesitation is in part due to a need to rely on the community to keep her child safe.

The schools do not take temperatures in-house; teachers and other staff are required to check for fever at home before school. Parents must take temperatures and sign a waiver saying their children are not sick.

As thermometers vary in cost and accuracy, this could lead to children unknowingly going to school with a fever.

“Until my kid was sick, I didn’t have an accurate thermometer,” Shaffer said. “How many people have accurate thermometers at home?”

This fear might also be compounded by the fact that most Israeli schools don’t have regular nurses, only those that come in to give vaccinations. However, children in schools with special needs have ongoing access.

A spokesperson for the Education Ministry told The Media Line: “It’s the parents’ responsibility for now to take their kids’ temperature.”

The current system, which relies on the vigilance of parents, does not make Shaffer comfortable.

“From my perspective, it’s not just about me sending the kids to school saying that I trust the school to adhere to all the regulations,” she stated. “I’m also trusting parents to send their kids to school, knowing they haven’t come into contact with anybody else and that they’ve been keeping social distancing in every other way possible apart from going to class. I don’t know if I can do that. It’s a lot of trust from my side.”

Shaffer says the pandemic highlights the everyday inequities people with health conditions face.

“I think in general, people don’t consider at-risk kids who are integrated into the school system. Even when it’s a normal winter, other parents will send their kids to school sick with flu or fevers. It’s not just a coronavirus thing, she said.

“Parents want to send their kids to school because they can’t take off another sick day from work. I understand that totally, but if my son is sick, I can’t work for a month,” she said.

She would also like the ministry to provide masks to children, as many of those available in pharmacies are meant for adult-size faces.

The ministry responded: “We do not provide masks; everyone finds a mask that is good for them because people like different materials…. We did offer masks to teachers for children with special needs where their faces are visible.”

According to a ministry official citing a daily self-reporting system for schools, as of March 17, there were no students sick with coronavirus. There were four teachers who had tested positive, three of whom are expected back next week.

The ministry spokesperson said in addition that schools are disinfected throughout the day: “The school is cleaned several times a day while students attend, and its deepest cleaning is after the children leave.”

Despite this, Shira, a mom to a son with a heart condition who declined to give her last name, has also decided to keep her kids at home.

“Because my son is high risk, we all are high risk,” she told The Media Line.

Shira does not envision sending her kids back to school anytime soon, which makes her worry about the academic and social education her children are missing out on.

She also says her kids are anxious about going back to school out of fear that they will get their brother sick, but worries that the fear might take on new proportions as other kids start returning.

Beth Steinberg, co-director and co-founder of Shutaf inclusion programs (www.campshutaf.org [1]) in Jerusalem, has also seen the impact of anxiety on kids both with and without disabilities.

“Over the course of these past months, we’ve been in touch with families to see how people are,” she told The Media Line.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to spoke about sleeping problems their kids were having,” she went on. “I’ve heard about bedwetting issues…. These kids who normally would not have these issues suddenly have them for reasons you cannot put your finger on. There is a pandemic, but you can’t put your finger on specifically what doesn’t feel right.”

The Education Ministry has made a concerted effort to reduce children’s anxiety over returning to school.

“We have some movies featuring children, and teachers show students how they should look,” a ministry official said. “We gave a lot of explanations to the children and to the parents before they came back. We even sent a letter about how to talk to children about returning to school or kindergarten, and how they should prepare.”

Mor Sabag, a kindergarten teacher in Be’er Yaakov, southeast of Tel Aviv, told The Media Line: “The students were nervous and they had questions, so we planned the curriculum to include a lot of activities to talk about their feelings…. We started in small groups, so we had a lot of time to talk and listen to them. It made the change from home to school easier.”

These efforts appear to work, as excitement seems to trump fear over returning to school. Yet the coronavirus is still impacting people with all different kinds of underlying conditions.

Chana Shields Rosenfelder, a mom of kids with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), told The Media Line: “The kids who are on the same immunosuppressant my daughter is on can’t go back to school because it’s too much of a risk.”

Gaby Shine Markowitz, a parent and disability advocate, is also trying to figure out with her family how to send her kids back. Along with Down syndrome and a heart condition, her youngest daughter has a propensity for autoimmune disorders, which the coronavirus can kick start. The decision is heart-wrenching, as some options include family separations.

“We are now in a big dilemma because we are thinking that either none of the kids are going back to school – in which case what are the older kids going to do about their schooling and will they be socially isolated when all their peers are back at school – or might we have to split up as a family, and one of us parents take our daughter and go and live somewhere else,” Markowitz stated.

“Another option is that each kid would go and live with a friend,” she told The Media Line.

Like many parents The Media Line spoke with, she is very happy with how accommodating the schools have been and is grateful for all the support provided. Still, her situation is understandably difficult.

“We’re kind of flailing. It’s really stressful,” she said.

When it comes to students with special needs, the child’s doctor needs to make a decision about whether he or she can return to school. While it is true that special education students started first, not all of them were able to attend.

This was the case for the children of Rachel Rapport, a mom of a six, including a son with a heart condition and another who has Down syndrome, is on the autism spectrum and is nonverbal. Her kids were not allowed to go to school prior to March 15, and they started this week.

This has been a huge relief for Rapport, who has noticed changes in her son’s behavior since he switched to approximately two months of online Zoom classes, though without the special teaching and therapy the school normally provides.

“There’s definitely regression in the autism-type behaviors like eye contact, and [he is] a lot less vocal than he was,” she explained.

”It’s also affected us, he needs the feeding tube and he sleeps with oxygen, and I can’t just say I’m off to work and here’s a babysitter,” Rapport told The Media Line. “It basically means that someone in the family has to be home…. There is no relief or anything because it is [all] on us.”

According to Rachel Avramzon, head of the department for children with special needs at the Education Ministry, students who are too medically vulnerable to join in-person classes have two available options.

“Once they cannot come to school, the teachers can go to their home and give them all the treatment and all the teaching they need. The second option is they can participate with the computer… online when they are at home and their class is in school. These are the two options they have now,” she noted.

Parents who are at high-risk for coronavirus but have non-vulnerable kids also face difficult decisions. They include Anat Reichman, a mom of two on the autism spectrum who go to a regular private preschool. She has a blood clotting disorder and has decided to keep her kids home as a result.

“We have to extra careful because one, I’m high risk, and two, our lives are not really manageable without both parents,” she told The Media Line. “The devastation of something major happening to us… it’s more than our household could actually handle right now.”

In order to reassure her kids during this frightening time, Reichman has explained to them that by staying home, they are saving grandmas and grandpas, which makes them superheroes.

She explains that she does not focus on health issues because her kids have slight OCD tendencies, yet she does focus on keeping older loved ones safe. Her children now actually make better eye contact when people are wearing masks, and they like playing with them, especially when Reichman wears her mask as a hat.

However, Dr. Edda Weissberg, a mother of four and an independent psychologist focusing on special education, finds herself in the opposite camp.

She is recovering from brain surgery and had to fight to get her daughter back into her special education classes when they were opened a few weeks ago. She was the only one who wanted the class to resume, and her child remains the sole student.

Weissberg is not worried about sending her daughter back to school.

“I have her take a shower and change clothes right when she comes home. I had a daughter immunosuppressed as an infant and we took precautions then, and it worked. No need to enter into hysteria; just take rational precautions,” she told The Media Line.

Families are not the only ones worried about catching coronavirus. Educators like Natalie Halachmi, owner and manager of Natalie’s Nursery and a mother of four from Netanya, is fearful about getting her family sick.

“I’m not just worried about safety, I’m worried about the whole family,” she told The Media Line.

“Thank God we are healthy, we are low risk. But it is still a risk,” she said. “I was given absolutely no guidance on how to reopen. I checked the government and news sites. There was nothing. I just copied what they did in the supermarket.”

Halachmi’s preschool now has five of its seven children back, all between the ages of newborn and three, which makes it difficult for her to practice social distancing. The only changes she is imposing is barring parents from entering, having the kids bring their own food to avoid potentially contaminated dishes, and checking children’s temperature before they enter.

“I warned the parents before they sent their kids to me [that] I can’t do any social distancing with the children,” she said.

“You just can’t social distance at this age when you’re looking after them,” she explained.

Halachmi does not wear a mask, so children can read her facial expressions, which helps them learn and lessens any anxiety they might have.

“It wouldn’t be right,” she said. “They need the contact, and I told the parents that unless I do it properly, I’m not willing to do it at all.”

No one knows the long-term impact for kids not returning to school due to health conditions, nor the extent to which anxiety might affect all kids. Hopefully, as the number of coronavirus cases in Israel drops, the fewer people there will be who face its repercussions.