While keeping the threat level at its maximum, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is reopening schools and wants the city to "get back to normal as quickly as possible." But, as Teri Schultz asks, what is normal?
Mothers and fathers kiss their kids goodbye at the school gates - schools that are now under terror-threat level four's new rules. While the 160 schools in Brussels are cautiously reopening their doors, those doors will be guarded by police units which will restrict access by parents even at the elementary and secondary levels. Some 300 police will be dedicated to protecting 35,000 students spread throughout Brussels' 19 districts. Some schools aren't planning to let the kids outside once they've arrived at school, with recreation breaks taken inside and after-school activities canceled.
Closing schools at all was a controversial measure, with Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur among its critics. Speaking to Belgian public broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday, Mayeur said while he supports the decisions of the federal government, he had "another point of view." Mayeur said he thought it would have been better to keep schools open than to have "young people scattered throughout the city."
The education minister for Wallonia and Brussels, Joelle Milquet, set off a firestorm when she additionally suggested that schools should create reinforced "safe rooms" where the school population could run and shelter in case of an attack. Mayeur blasted that idea, saying he refuses to create "bunkers" in schools. Others said measures like this would require money no one has to spend.
Left in a quandary
Amid all this, my kids' school just barely outside the Brussels city limit could have felt like it was being left in a quandary. Is there no longer a "serious and imminent" threat when you cross the street from Brussels to Flanders? But school director Philippe De Vleeschouwer was decisive, sending out a message to parents Sunday night saying school would be open. Most students showed up. So did the national media, to interview the director about his decision not to shut school doors despite its proximity to Brussels.
Greeting the kids at the school gate as he does each morning - though with police standing nearby - de Vleeschouwer said it was an obvious choice for him. "We have to live like normal," he said. "For the children it's important that life goes on. It's better to be here because when you are home, the parents are really worried about the situation and speaking about it. But here they are working, learning, playing."
"Our job," he said, "is to show the children that, okay, maybe there are some difficulties in the world but that's life."
He said parents had been very supportive. But one mother, Amelie Roger, told me she wasn't entirely on board. Roger also has one child in a school a kilometer away, in Brussels, following the stringent "lockdown" modalities. She's not comfortable with any of it and would have liked all schools to stay closed for now. "I don't feel secure," she said, explaining that she'd told her child to stay close to the office side of the playground during recreation periods.
My own mother had some trepidation too for her grandsons. She's accustomed to me running toward danger rather than away, but these boys are a different matter. Speaking with them by Skype, she asked them how it felt to be at school under these circumstances. Both my six- and 10-year-old confirmed they much preferred to be at school and insisted they weren't scared, "but most of the other kids are," the elder conveyed, perhaps not so credibly. My mom said the images of Brussels seen in the US were so frightening that she is getting constant messages asking if we are okay.
As classes got underway, one fifth-grader confided that while she was glad school had not closed, she's a bit afraid. "Yes, a little," she said, "a little…because what if the terrorists come and shoot us and put bombs here?"
At our school, the discussions at least in the older classes went into detail about how the victims died, about what terrorism is and why, however inexplicably, these people did what they did. They created a wall of notes and pictures expressing solidarity with France, about how killing is wrong and how love should conquer hate. My older boy wrote that he wants everyone to be equal, every religion and every viewpoint. Some of them wrote about fear.
Exposure to reality
Reading the notes and choking up a bit was Ophelie Fay, who has a four- and six-year-old at school. She admitted she'd been too afraid to send her kids to school on Monday. But they came back on Tuesday and she said she was grateful for for the exposure students were getting at school to the reality of the situation.
Nevertheless, Fay was a bit disturbed her son's picture on the wall showed people lying on the ground, obviously dead, when she hasn't let him see any pictures or watch television.
"I want them to know the world they are living in," she said. "I mean, I wish they wouldn't have to know, but it's how it is and it's better for them to know the exact words." She worries that her young daughter seems obsessed with how the terrorists "picked" who they killed and asked her a question she wasn't prepared for.
"Maman, what do we do if the terrorists come?" Fay said she felt like saying "of course they won't come" but in this new reality, it seemed more appropriate to be practical. She thought back on what survivors had done in the attacks on the Paris cafes. In a conversation that would have been unimaginable before Belgian pre-schoolers were exposed to this threat, Fay took a deep breath and told her four-year old if terrorists attack, she should lie down and play dead, thinking of all the people who love her, "until someone nice comes to get you."
And then, Fay said, "I cried."