The debate about in-person vs. virtual school misses the point

As a parent – and as a policy-maker – it seems as if everything we do these days is related to COVID. How will we recover? How can we ensure that everyone is getting the vaccine who deserves it? How can we deal with the devastating economic and unemployment effects? How soon can we (safely) get kids back into school?

Of course, the mental health impacts of COVID are damning as well, and much of that blame – at least for our kids – has been thrown at the feet of virtual learning. There is a lot of truth in that, of course. Evidence is clear that the mental health of our kids are, on the whole, suffering, with a rise noted in self-reported rates of depression and visits to the emergency room. Some are quick to cite the idea that this is a direct result of the fact that millions of kids are in some sort of virtual learning environment now, either full-time or on a hybrid schedule.

That being said, I really, truly believe that much of this debate misses the point. Why? Because – even for kids who are in school – they’re not getting their usual experience.

If you are in the real world in any capacity, you know it: Everything is different. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. STAY MORE THAN SIX FEET AWAY FROM ME. And if you are someone who was prone to anxiety, you are nervous every time you go out, because you can, quite literally, contract a deadly disease at any moment.

Okay, fine. Now, take all those fears and all those changes, and apply them to school. What do you get? A recipe for disaster. Take this article from Wisconsin Public Radio that details the struggles of kids in the pandemic. It notes, correctly, that zoom school makes it harder for kids to get the help they need and limits social interactions and the desperately needed personal connections. But, it also notes that in-person school is not a panacea:

With the broad disruption wrought by COVID-19, though, simply bringing students back into classrooms doesn’t resolve their mental health concerns.

In the Lake Mills district, where Kisten [a school psychologist] works, students have been mostly attending school in person since the start of the year.

“There’s a lot of grief right now, but the students don’t really have the right words to express that, or they don’t even know what it is that they’re feeling,” she said.

Other evidence has buttressed this point: Kids’ mental health is suffering regardless of where they are in school.

I don’t want to miss the point: Zoom and electronic learning is a cause for mental illness. There’s no question about it. However, even among those who are in school, things aren’t normal. And this is hurting the mental health of our kids.

The debate about whether or not kids should be in school or virtual misses the point entirely. We should be concentrating on SAFELY getting all of our kids back into school, then providing them with the mental health supports that they need in order to thrive. Even kids who are in school are reporting difficulties right now. Real-life or virtual, they’re in pain.

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