The Pluses and Minuses of “Back to School” During a Pandemic

September has arrived and, for better or worse, schools are back in session after administrators and families spent the summer grappling with the decision of whether to begin the school year in person, online, or some hybrid version of the two. The balance between physical and mental health risks is precarious and the impact of schools is being put to the test more than ever. Should we put forward safety at the risk of widening the opportunity gap for at risk populations? Can a physical school model be made both safe and effective?

Pluses of a Return to “Normal”

A traditional in-school model is needed to provide equitable learning to our diverse student populations. In countries where virtual schooling has been going on for months, what we do realize is that, while top-of-the-class children are still coming out on top, those with existing difficulties are at greater risk of falling behind than ever. This drop out phenomenon occurs more frequently for students with lower grades,  those who struggle with focusing, and students who find the school environment stressful. Those children have greater difficulties in finding their work rhythm and maintaining focus at a time when it is even more critical to the learning process. This is in addition to the already troubling disparities in education for black and brown children as well as children with diagnosed disabilities, for whom the effects are compounded. 

The role of our schools in preparing children to be part of society is also vital. Learning how to interact with peers and finding one’s place in a group are essential for the sociological and psychological development of children. School serves as the main location of socialization for children. They have limited social circles apart from school and are at a stage where they are learning how to create them. For kids who are already uneasy in social situations or who are struggling to form relationships, cutting them off from physical socialization can be very damaging in the long term. Additionally, isolation is a main factor seen in people developing depression, especially in those already fragile in that area. Regardless of age, seeking out social interaction does not come naturally to many people, even without the looming threat of a virus.

School is also a place of diversity for many children. Children benefit from exposure to viewpoints different from those of their close family, essential to building their own moral compass, a critical spirit, and to creating their own rules. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t note the obvious benefit of a return to school for working parents. Our schools are not meant to provide childcare and yet, in the absence of other options, the in-person school day does provide the freedom our workforce requires.

Minus… 

Clearly, there is so much to gain from the institution that we have come to rely on, so what’s holding us back? There has been much talk about Covid-19 health risks, mostly centering on at-risk populations. Although children surprisingly do not seem to be affected more than adults and are not considered a risk group in the case of this disease, they do remain fragile. Complications of any illness can have damaging long-term effects on their still developing bodies. As most school-age children have been isolated from exposure, we still do not possess enough data to fully know the immediate risks, let alone any long-term effects.

Additionally, while younger age groups may not typically suffer serious physical health consequences, should they contract Covid-19, symptomatic or not, they will play a role in the spread of the virus. As a society, we’ve been tasked with limiting that spread and protecting our fragile populations. We’ve been tasked with saving lives. How will this responsibility impact the emotional health of children when it lands on their shoulders?

In order to minimize that likelihood, schools need to operate following new and restrictive protocols upon opening their doors: six feet of distance, faces covered, little to no close contact with teachers or peers, and strict enforcement of restrictive sick policies. These limitations will directly impact the effectiveness of our best teaching practices as well as prevent those positive social interactions from happening, even if students and teachers do share a physical space. As children exhibit signs of the inevitable childhood illnesses throughout the school year, their learning flow will be disrupted as they are asked to quarantine and learn from home for a period of time before being allowed to return to the school. 

What does it all equal?

It will come as no surprise that a perfect solution does not exist. Each of the possible school models is being tried and tested right now. What we do know is that this pandemic has brought to light the many ways that we rely on our school systems, some families more than others. As we move forward, we should take care to remember that and seek to maintain equity where it counts. Perhaps those who are finding themselves newly at risk will come away with a greater understanding and respect for those who have always struggled to get the most out of our school systems. 

More immediately, we must do our best to understand the varied risks to our students and seek to limit the negative impacts each of them us faces. If your children are lacking social interaction, look for new opportunities to engage within your risk tolerance. If a virtual school model is intimidating to your child, remind them that they are not alone in those feelings as it is new to all of us. Don’t allow yourself to get hung up on the idea of what your routine used to be when a new model can provide opportunities for different or even better routines for your family, even if they are temporary.

We truly are in this together; don’t hesitate to reach out to teachers and administrators with thoughts and questions. It is not a perfect school year, but then, what is?