As K-12 students across the country prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, mounting research suggests that school districts can welcome students back to the classroom safely. However, from here in Ann Arbor to large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, a flurry of school leaders have signed off on plans to keep millions of students home for remote learning in response to the ongoing COVID-19 threat.
There are clear reasons for the widespread push toward distance learning, at least to kick off the upcoming school year. Since the coronavirus has the potential to spread easily in large gathering places like schools, experts fear that a return to in-person learning would spark a surge in COVID-19 infections. At a time when the United States just surpassed a total of 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases, many officials, students and health experts don’t think now is the right time to bring thousands of students together to learn.
It is obvious that a return to in-person learning in the middle of this public health crisis carries risks. But evidence is increasingly emerging that the risks of keeping students at home are even higher. According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.”
The truth is that while remote learning may curb the spread of COVID-19, it has devastating implications for all K-12 students, especially younger-aged children. Regardless of what many school leaders say about distance learning, it is nowhere near an acceptable replacement for the in-person education that so many students depend on. While many are expecting the second round of remote learning to be an improvement over the first in the spring — when the coronavirus first shut down our economy — it is becoming increasingly clear that the distance learning this fall will be another nightmare for students and parents alike.
According to the Washington Post, “America is about to embark on Round 2 of its unplanned experiment in online education — and, for millions of students, virtual learning won’t be any better than it was in the spring.” As reported in the same Washington Post article, students will face numerous hurdles if forced to learn online this school year. In addition to instructors’ lack of experience with remote learning, “millions of students nationwide still lack devices and Internet access.” In the end, as risky as the COVID-19 threat remains, school leaders must weigh the equally dangerous impacts of inadequate learning from home, especially on students from poorer backgrounds. At a time when every student deserves a high-quality education more than ever, distance learning is deeply problematic.
While it’s painfully obvious that students will get an inferior education online, the threats that remote learning pose to student development go far beyond academics. An abundance of evidence suggests that distance learning has disastrous social and emotional consequences for students, raising the chance that a destructive mental health crisis will arise from online classes. After the first round of remote learning earlier this year led to an increase in anxiety, depression and suicidal or self-harming thoughts for school-aged children, we cannot afford to make the same mistake twice. In addition to a way for students to develop academically, socially and emotionally, in-person classes also serve as a safe haven for students who come from troubled backgrounds and are endangered by violence and abuse at home. A significant number of school districts and law enforcement officers continue to voice concerns that distance learning prevents teachers and school administrators from finding out about abuse and intervening for the benefit of the student.
Finally, besides the direct impacts of online learning on students, a distance education has alarming effects on our economy, which is already struggling in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. One of the most glaring and obvious impacts of remote learning is the inconveniences and troubles it brings for working parents, many of whom are already suffering financially. As a result of mandatory distance learning, parents are forced to commit less time to their jobs so they can help their students successfully learn from home. Many others must also turn to costly child care options who have no other choice, which puts additional financial strain on families.
In the end, it’s overwhelmingly clear that distance learning is no match for the valuable experiences that students derive from an in-person education. In addition to the vast drawbacks to distance learning, research increasingly demonstrates that schools can reopen safely and intelligently in the age of COVID-19, with both in-person and hybrid options available. Meanwhile, as our understanding of the novel coronavirus deepens, it has become exceedingly evident that COVID-19 is a mild illness for the vast majority of infected children. According to medical research published by Mayo Clinic, “While all children are capable of getting the virus that causes COVID-19, they don’t become sick as often as adults. Most children have mild symptoms or no symptoms.” At the same time, numerous experts also suggest that even if children do contract the coronavirus from in-person classes, the chance that they will transmit COVID-19 to higher-risk individuals remains low.
At this point, the evidence makes it exceptionally clear that schools can reopen safely in the presence of strict safety measures — including social distancing, hand washing and face coverings — and provide an enriching and high-quality education for all K-12 students across the nation. While in-person classes do not come without risks to public health, the extreme risks posed by distance learning models are far deeper for both students and society as a whole. School leaders who have moved the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year online have an obligation to their students and their communities to make plans for in-person or hybrid classes immediately.
Evan Stern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.