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I Live In The Netherlands: I Have No Choice But To Send My Kids Back To School

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Like many parents around the world, the reality that my children will soon be returning to the classroom weighs heavily on my heart. I am very concerned about anyone in our family catching and spreading the coronavirus. Except the crucial difference is that while many families in the United States have the choice for remote learning or in-person instruction, we do not.

I’m an American immigrant living in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband and three young children, two of whom are school-aged. All children ages five to eighteen years old are subject to compulsory attendance. School over here is much more than education. It is seen as crucial to a child’s overall social development. The majority of time in school, especially the early years, is spent less on traditional models of rote learning but rather on their social and emotional well-being such as playing games, team-building exercises, music, and arts and crafts. The focus is on the overall development of the child and forming lasting friendships. It’s one of the reasons why the younger children, in general, do not have homework but rather child-initiated, after-school playdates.

It all sounds rather warm, fuzzy, and cozy — gezellig as the Dutch say. Children here have a care-free childhood that we would all love to have. It’s part of the reason Dutch children and teenagers have a reputation for being the happiest in the world. It’s why my Dutch husband and I chose to have and raise our family here.

When the coronavirus finally landed on our shores, it took us all by surprise. To address the nation and assuage our fears, Prime Minister Mark Rutte held a press conference. During his speech, Rutte explained the intelligent lockdown strategy and introduced the idea of herd immunity:

“ They are also telling us that – as we wait for a vaccine or treatment to be developed – we can delay the spread of the virus and at the same time build up population immunity in a controlled manner. Let me explain what that entails. Anyone who has had the virus is usually immune to it afterward. Just like with the measles back in the day. The bigger the group that acquires immunity, the smaller the chance that the virus can make the leap to vulnerable older people or people with underlying health issues. The aim of population immunity is to build, as it were, a protective wall around this group.

Following the rationale that the coronavirus was already here and the idea of trying to get rid of it comes at a cost that is too great for the Dutch government, the plan is to allow for the slow, controlled spread of the virus and provide medical care for those need it. To oversee the mitigation strategy, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the government set up the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) headed by Jaap van Dissel to provide crisis management.

Our pandemic approach on the international stage isn’t what one would call an ideal case study for best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. We remain an outlier as Van Dissel firmly stands by his grounds that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that facemasks reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Aside from mandatory facemasks use on public transportation, masks are strongly discouraged for use in daily pandemic life, including hospitals, clinics, and care homes. If the Netherlands includes probable COVID-19 deaths, it would be among the top countries having the most deaths per million inhabitants. Thousands of our elderly and immunocompromised who were strongly suspected of having COVID-19 but never confirmed with a PCR test died alone, scared, and in pain.

Schools were initially closed not based on the OMT’s recommendation but rather pressure from the public. After conducting their own independent investigation, the OMT declared that “patients under twenty years old play a much smaller role in the spread than adults and the elderly” and therefore schools were safe for all children to attend. The research came under heavy criticism from international colleagues, citing that it was conducted when children and teenagers were all home and did not look at other factors such as children’s behaviors and interactions in school settings. Despite the scientific scrutiny of the study abroad, most folks in the Low Countries accepted it as conventional wisdom.

Preschool children sit in a classroom in The Hague, on May 11, 2020 as primary schools, playgroups and childcare reopen amid the pandemic of the novel coronavirus

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When Rutte announced that the “coronacrisis” had passed and schools were re-opening in May, people took liberties to reclaim their pre-pandemic life — restaurants and café terraces filled, BBQ and parties thrown, playdates and sleepovers arranged, and vacationing commenced. It’s easy to feel as if you just hallucinated a pandemic as life here feels eerily normal unless you stay updated with the news and the daily Twitter COVID-19 updates.

There is a pervasive sense of schijnveiligheid, a false sense of security, that the worst is over and that COVID-19 is nothing more than the flu. Anyone voicing criticisms about our government’s approach would be politely dismissed or risk being socially ostracized as a radical conspiracy theorist. Meanwhile, our neighbors in the United Kingdom and Belgium are so nervous about our rise in infection rates that they’ve strongly discouraged travel to our country and are enforcing quarantine upon those returning home from here.

Schools, with staggered openings according to region, have now resumed for the new school year. What’s truly disorientating, and worrisome, that schools will be back to almost normal. Imagine a full classroom of twenty to forty students, a teacher, possibly a teacher’s aid, where no one is wearing facemasks, and students do not have to social distance. That’s what is happening here.

Only 25% of school buildings in the Netherlands meet ventilation standards. Elementary school-aged children do not have to quarantine if they are returning from a code orange country. The RIVM guidelines for safe school openings fail to meet the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the WHO, and the CDC guidelines. Schools in the Netherlands fulfill everything that we’re told to avoid — “crowded places, close-contact settings, and confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation”.

The government will be enforcing leerplicht, compulsory school education. Accommodations can be made for children who are high-risk or who have family members who fit the criteria determined by the RIVM. Failure to comply with compulsory education may result in fines. Parents who express “corona-angst,” unnecessary anxiety, may lead to the involvement of the local truancy officer and social services removing children from the home. Enforcing compulsory in-person education during a pandemic with community transmission of a potentially deadly and debilitating virus is cruel.

Education is very close to my heart. As the eldest daughter of immigrant Filipino parents, education deeply matters to me because it’s the only privilege I could have. Education, I believe, helped me overcome the disadvantages of being born poor, brown, and female. I have every intention to give the same gift of education and love of learning to all three of my children. I empathize with children and teenagers who rely on school for refuge and who otherwise would fall behind if they were not physically present in school.

Parents also depend on schools as their default childcare because working from home while having children around is mentally exhausting for everyone involved. There are also parents who are essential workers and cannot leave their children home alone. Many parents close to a burn-out are only just recovering, and everyone seems to be experiencing corona-fatigue.

Yet the opening of the schools in the Netherlands amidst rising infection rates seems like a dangerous gamble. Children and parents could be left in the dark if someone in their vicinity tests positive for COVID-19. Unlike standard protocols where an email notification is given to parents if their child could have been exposed to measles, chickenpox, or lice, schools are not obligated to inform parents of potential Covid-19 exposure. Yet SARS-CoV-2 is far more dangerous than the typical laundry list of common transmittable diseases.

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In-person schooling does not feel safe. If something happens to me and my husband, there would be no one who could take care of our three young children? His parents are both well over the age of seventy. We try to the best of our ability to socially distance and avoid crowded spaces.

To allow for the safer opening of schools, I suggest that the Dutch government first takes control of our community transmission by improving our system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantine. In the meantime, children should have the option to learn on-line at home. The danger that the schools currently pose, especially to those who are high-risk, far outweighs the dangers of missing out on the structure and socialization that children receive at schools. Allowing for online, distance education will make schools safer by reducing class sizes and therefore make it possible physical distancing among students in the classroom. Facemasks, and well-ventilated classrooms would also help tremendously. A concerned group of health professionals known as the Red Team C19NL provides a comprehensive action plan to minimize the risks of COVID-19 infections in schools. They have yet to receive an answer from the Minister of Education.

It’s true that we can’t raise our children in risk-free bubbles. We can’t keep them home forever. Yet these are not normal times. So much remains unknown and the current understanding of the virus remains in flux. Contrary to popular belief, children in the Netherlands can get sick with COVID-19 and may be hospitalized. According to recent RIVM data, out of the 439 children (0-9 years old) who recently tested positive, 13% were either admitted to the hospital or are currently in the hospital.

We have yet to have a complete picture of the long-term consequences of this disease, or have a consensus as to whether or not children can transmit SARS-CoV0-2. The mental health repercussions of children being carriers of the disease and resulting in the death or long-term disability of adults around them have yet to be addressed.

The Netherlands isn’t the only country that underestimated the severity and pervasiveness of COVID-19. Many countries all over the world, particularly in Europe, are also experiencing a rise in new infections and possibly confronting a second wave. We must learn to adapt accordingly until we have an effective treatment and vaccine.

As for whether or not my children will attend school this Fall, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I remain optimistic that when our school opens in our region, they can provide us with a solution. My husband and I are privileged to have the time and resources to provide private tutoring to our sons who thrive with personalized attention and a stable, loving, and supportive home. Until then, I wish everyone around the world all the best of health and a safe learning environment. We may not all feel okay at the moment, but we will get through this.

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