Several students in the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, have launched petitions seeking changes to the remote learning strategy the district is using, including spending fewer hours in front of a Chromebook and eliminating “homework,” The Chicago Tribune reports.
“I, as well as many other students I’ve talked to have already been getting headaches, sore necks and backs, and strained eyes every single day,” one online petition from a student at Senn High School reads. “Mentally, we feel exhausted, unmotivated, and isolated.”
Isabeau Seiler, who started the petition that cites a few research studies, says she’s “deeply concerned for both students’ and teachers’ mental and physical health.”
Isabeau’s not the only one. And such complaints and concerns about e-learning aren’t only coming from Chicago.
In addition to mental health worries, students say it’s also harder to focus and learn in front of a computer screen than it is in person, especially if they’re spending four or more hours in front of that computer screen.
“I would say [in-person school] is definitely better than online because it provides more structure and routine in my life that keeps me focused,” student reporter Alexander Wolfson at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, quotes a junior at the Bullis School in nearby Potomac as saying.
The concerns being expressed by students across the nation are well-founded and well-researched, based on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Although the AAP strongly advocates for in-person learning for the coming school year, the current widespread circulation of the virus will not permit in-person learning to be safely accomplished in many jurisdictions. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families. The disproportionate impact this has had on Black, Latinx, and Native American/Alaskan Native children and adolescents must also be recognized.
Although this advice runs counter to the academy’s typically conservative stance on matters of children’s health, Dr Sean O’Leary, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, who helped write the guidelines for the Itasca, Illinois-based organization, explained why.
“As pediatricians, many of us have recognized already the impact that having schools closed even for a couple months had on children,” The New York Times quoted him as saying shortly after the guidance was issued in June. “At the same time, a lot of us are parents. We experienced our own kids doing online learning. There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening. Now we’re seeing studies documenting this. Kids being home led to increases in behavioral health problems. There were reports of increased rates of abuse.”
Another online petition, launched by eighth grader Idalia Rizvic at Boone Elementary in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, asks that the school “day” be shortened so that it ends at 1:30 and that the entire concept of “homework” be reconsidered in light of the fact that students are doing the same amount of “work” anyway in front of their screens.
Each community must make its own decisions about learning, and if that includes any e-learning, there are risks that include children’s mental health and learning loss. If it includes any in-person instruction, there’s an increased risk of spreading the virus and then transmitting that virus to family members who may be in a higher-risk group than the kids in our classrooms.
In an interview for Science Friday, Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, paints a middle ground based on what we know for sure in the general case, not from data with very specific circumstances that might not apply in every community.
“All the data that we have shows that kids at least have as much virus as adults. And this varies from kid to kid, just like it varies from adult to adult,” she said in the podcast. “So over all, the things that we really do know that we have consistent evidence of is that kids can become infected, they can spread it to others, and in some rare cases, they can get very, very sick from it.”
Finding a balance between that risk and the risk of learning loss or mental health issues that arise from e-learning is as much like walking a tight rope for school officials as finding a balance between opening inside dining and having high numbers of restaurants go out of business might be for governors.
Which is to say, no disrespect to business owners intended, kids won’t get another chance to experience high school or learn to read in kindergarten. Although caution and care must be urged, the mark Covid-19 has already made on our children and their learning trajectory is indelible.