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The United States and Other Countries Rush the Return to Normalcy, with Devastating Consequences

Re-imagined 18th Street in Adams Morgan, Washington, DC USA

Many countries are now experiencing the second surge in cases that medical experts warned would occur if public safety measures and restrictions were lifted too soon.

Only roughly 4 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, yet nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners are American.  Now America is the world leader in another grim race: COVID-19 infections and fatalities.

States throughout America failed to follow the lead of countries like Spain and China, who initiated strict lockdowns and quarantine requirements soon after the virus began spreading within their borders. Even with these measures in place, the novel coronavirus infection still spread quickly throughout many countries, and several are still reeling from the after-effects of the initial blows and experiencing high numbers of new infections.

Many countries are now experiencing the second surge in cases that medical experts warned would occur if public safety measures and restrictions were lifted too soon. What must be done to prevent the spread of the infection while things begin to return to some sense of normalcy, and what lessons can be learned from different countries’ approaches to controlling the spread of the virus?

For nearly two months, bars and nightclubs in Spain have been filled with people enjoying their new found freedom as patios and dining rooms of restaurants filled with patrons who showed little regarded for social distancing and other measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As both medical professionals and others predicted, this has led to a new surge of cases, and after the end of the state of alarm and lockdown the number of people infected had tripled within three weeks.

As was the case during the beginning of the pandemic, the region of Catalunya has some of the worst rates of infection, and the area’s crowded beaches undoubtedly served as massive points of contagion from which many people contracted the virus.

As a result, Spain has been forced to institute more restrictions on the new normalcy. Nightclubs will be shuttered once again, and there are new rules regarding how late bars and restaurants can stay open and how many people can sit at a table. Smoking in public places is now almost completely banned.

Throughout the pandemic, Spain has had more restrictions and regulations regarding lockdown procedures and other preventative measures than almost any other country, but these developments show that if these measures aren’t kept in place for a long enough period of time and the return to a less restrictive new normalcy is rushed the consequences can be disastorous.

Nowhere in the United States ever had as many lockdown restrictions as Spain, and the frenzied effort to reopen schools and businesses is undoubtedly putting even more people at risk than ever before. The Trump administration’s insistence that students return to their classrooms is particularly troubling as new research continues to show that children are far more susceptible to the virus than was originally thought. According to a joint study executed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association rates of infection in children skyrocketed by 90% from July 9 to August 6.

Schools in Spain typically open in September, and it remains unclear what the beginning of the school year will look like for Spanish children, but schools elsewhere in Europe have already begun reopening with some success, even despite complications arising from new infections and other factors. Many states in Germany have already reopened schools, attempting to keep the virus from breaching the schoolyard walls and spreading quickly by restricting interactions between students in different classes and dividing classrooms into even smaller “clusters” where students essentially only have contact with other students in their small group.

However, even this careful, regimented approach has faced problems and setbacks. Two schools in the state of Meklenburg-Vorpommern in northwestern Germany were forced to shut their doors after infections were reported among students and staff.

A spokesperson for the state’s government told reporters that the state was “focusing on targeted measures to prevent renewed blanket closures.” These types of precautionary and highly regulated approaches to reopening schools are probably necessary to keep transmission of the COVID-19 virus under control, and if careful steps aren’t taken schools in America and elsewhere could be forced to shut down again almost immediately after they reopen.

Last spring proved that learning remotely from home using online classes is challenging for students and stressful for teachers at best, while at its worst it can become a complete disaster. Citizen Truth spoke with teachers in Europe and Spain who expressed concerns and complications ranging from students not participating in online classes and the difficulties of being able to tell who is actually paying attention to having to spend hours of extra time preparing and revising lessons so that they can be used effectively in an digital environment.

Ben is an American who has lived in Spain working as an English teacher for three years and hopes to return to the classroom in September if possible. He told Citizen Truth, “It’s already difficult enough to get students to participate in a regular classroom where you can tell who is actually focused and paying attention and can ask students whose mind is wandering questions or use other strategies to bring them back to the task at hand. When you’re conducting a class online, it’s a lot harder to do this, and sometimes even students who want to participate have trouble due to bad internet connection or other technical problems.”

“Teaching online makes it much harder to engage young learners,” said Rachel, who has taught English in Portugal and Spain. “The classes are less dynamic and the students have fewer opportunities to interact with their peers. I don’t have much flexibility with the type of activities I can include during the lesson, unlike in a physical classroom where we can do arts and crafts or games that involve moving around.”

Rachel also struggled with students appearing as if they were attending the class because they had logged in even though their attention was definitely focused elsewhere. She told Citizen Truth, “Many of my younger students would  turn off their cameras and mute their microphones, especially in bigger classes, which has an impact on their learning since I’m teaching students a new language so communication skills are really important.”

Teachers in the United States have faced similar dilemmas. Bryan Fisher, who teaches high school Japanese in Sacramento, experienced huge problems with students not showing up to online classes and struggled to keep students who did attend digital classes attentive and engaged. He explains, “As a teacher, it’s extremely demoralizing. You do all this planning, and nobody shows up. It’s the right thing to do, but online learning is a joke. Too many kids are going to tune out.”

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Fisher had such a difficult time with last spring’s distance learning experiment that he is personally prepared to take whatever risks to his personal health he needs to in order to get back into the classroom this fall, as the alternative presents to many obstacles to students’ learning and focus.

Language classes are particularly hard to teach online, and even if they return to their classrooms in the fall teachers of foreign language classes in most European schools will most likely face different obstacles as they attempt to show students how to correctly replicate and pronounce certain sounds and words from behind a mask. This has been another huge difference between European and American approaches to curtailing the virus. In Spain, one must be wearing a mask as soon as they step outside of their home, and it must remain on unless one is actively eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant. Many other countries around the world, including some of the countries with the lowest rate of infection, such as Slovakia, have similar policies or did at some point before loosening restrictions.

However, even strict lockdown measures during the quarantine and policies such as obligatory masks in public have not spared Spain from a new surge of cases. According to Johns Hopkins University, Spain has the highest number of cases in Western Europe, although some other countries, such as the UK and Italy, still have a higher death rate from the virus. Overall, the only country in Europe with a higher infection rate than Spain is Romania, although these countries still trail the United States and Brasil in number of cases.

In the United States, even the CDC has called for schools to be reopened, claiming that schoolchildren are less susceptible to infection be COVID-19 than adults and citing evidence that school closures are harmful to students’ learning and education.The Trump Administration has honed in on making the reopening of schools a key part of the “new normality.” The White House’s official website contains many figures referencing school closures’ debilitating effect on the economy both now and in the future, citing studies claiming that school closures will reduce students future earnings and make it impossible for parents to work, causing earning losses of over $200 billion.

However, many schools in the United States have had to close their doors only days after reopening due to new infections, bringing to mind questions regarding whether reopening schools on such a massive scale without proper safety protocols such as masks and social distancing is really what is best for America’s students.

Some schools districts have buckled down in defending their decision to reopen in spite of protests and concerns voiced by students and parents. In the Georgia’s North Paulding school district, 15-year-old Hannah Watters became somewhat of an internet celebrity after she was briefly suspended for posting images on Twitter showing fellow students packed into crowded hallways, the majority not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. After posting the images, Watters was not only suspended, but says she was forced to deal with threats from other students. She explained, “I know I’m doing the right thing and it’s not going to stop them from doing it, but it is concerning, especially since it’s a lot of the people that I go to school with. People I’ve known for years now that are threatening me now.”

Watters was concerned and surprised by her school district’s decision to reopen, stating, “We could have just delayed opening like many other schools and many other counties. They kind of sent us to school and used us as guinea pigs to see what would happen later on.”

These types of experiments do not come without consequences, and soon after Watters posted the images on social media three employees and six students were confirmed to have tested positive for the Coronavirus, forcing her school to close its doors again for largescale disinfection procedures.

In Northern Mississippi, students at Corinth High School were offered a choice: they could continue taking classes online as they had done in the spring or return to the high school for in-person classes. Many students, including 16-year-old Jaleah Walker, opted for the latter due to various reasons, including concerns about being able to understand difficult subjects with a heavy course load through online classes, a desire to see their friends once again and in Walker’s case, because she “wanted a sense of normalcy.”

Corinth attempted to avoid new infections by the virus through instituting measures such as social distancing rules in the hallways and having students eat lunch in their classrooms instead of in the cafeteria, but unfortunately in less than two weeks six people working at or attending the school had tested positive for COVID-19. Despite her hopes for a sense of normalcy, Walker is new taking classes online.

Quarantine measures and lockdown procedures dealt a sometimes fatal blow to owners of bars and restaurants, and both in the United States and abroad owners of these establishments were typically keen to have the opportunity to reopen once again. As lockdown measures owing to the state of emergency were lifted and one of the hottest summers on record began to heat up Spain bars and restaurants reopened their patios and eventually dining rooms (albeit with certain restrictions, sometimes adhered to sometimes not) for hungry and thirsty patrons eager to indulge themselves and enjoy time with friends and loved ones they hadn’t seen in months due to the quarantine and other factors related to the pandemic.

As much of a boon as this must have been to restauranters and bar owners, and no matter how happy patrons were to enjoy a good meal and a nice glass of wine in the company of friends and family they hadn’t seen in what felt like ages, the hordes of clientele enjoying their newfound freedom undoubtedly contributed to Spain’s huge surge in new cases, as individuals openly disregarded social distancing recommendations and began removing their masks at the time when it was probably most necessary. When bars and restaurants reopened across the United States, more or less the same phenomenom occurred, putting at risk not only patrons of these establishments but also the employees who are both necessary for these operations to run smoothly but also rely their source income in order to continue surviving.

One of these employees, Jennifer Welch, works at a bar in Baton Rouge and expressed a sentiment common to many workers in the foodservice and hospitality industries when she revealed “I 100 percent felt forced back to work at the bar.” Welch has immunocompromised family members, but had little choice but to return to work, a difficult decision many Americans are being forced to make these days.

It’s unlikely that COVID-19 is going anywhere anytime soon, and the world and the people who live in it must adapt to this new public health threat. The number of infections in America demonstrates that if this threat is ignored and not taken seriously the consequences can be deadly, but problems with distance learning and the economic fallout following mass shutdowns of restaurants and businesses also prove that strict lockdowns are do not come with severe reprecussions. As they prepare to navigate the tumultuous waters ahead, politicians and officials making crucial decisions regarding the health of their citizens and their countries’ respective economies must tread carefully and use all the resources and expert advice at their disposal to ensure that they make the right choices.

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