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  • Tracy Sherlock

Kids need in-person learning and parents need a break

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

Classes may not look like this again for quite some time. (Wikimedia photo.)

The unintended effects of keeping children out of school may very well be worse than the effect covid-19 usually has on children, at least as far as the evidence to date shows.

“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,” the American Academy of Pediatrics says in its Guidance for School Re-entry.

Those negative impacts include social isolation, difficulty identifying physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as learning deficits. If teachers can’t suss out these issues and provide support, kids are at risk of harm and even death, the report says.

A group of child advocates, physicians, researchers and health care professionals, calling for a children’s wellness task force in B.C., share similar concerns.

“Research from Europe indicates a significant impact of the pandemic on children that will last for many years, and a similar impact is predicted in B.C.,” the group wrote in an open letter to members of the B.C. government.

Clearly, the health impacts of keeping kids out of school can be severe, to say nothing of the lost learning time. Although there are still a lot of unknowns, the health impacts of covid-19 on children appear to be less so. Children are less likely to have severe disease, less likely to become infected at all and less likely to spread infection, the AAP says.

During June, B.C. provided optional in-class instruction for elementary school students two days per week and one day per week for secondary school students. About one-third of B.C. students returned to school and the balance of learning was online, while full-time instruction was available for the children of essential workers and those with special needs.

From the beginning of covid-19 to May 28, 26 children under the age of 10 and 51 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 tested positive for the virus, B.C. Centre for Disease Control data shows. Three were hospitalized, none were admitted to intensive care and, thankfully, none died.

Between June 1, when schools went back in and July 2, there were an additional 23 children under the age of 10 who tested positive and an additional 25 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 who tested positive. During the one month schools were open, the share of the population getting the virus under the age of 20 increased from 3 per cent to 5 per cent. It’s certainly not a surge in cases, but the numbers do represent an increase.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has acknowledged that opening up society, including schools, will mean more cases, but that the risks and benefits need to be weighed against each other.

It’s similar to the decision by B.C. authorities to reopen long term care homes to visitors, even knowing seniors are extremely vulnerable to covid-19. The alternative – barring visitors for the foreseeable future – seems worse than the risk.

Many parents are frustrated with online learning, both because it prohibits their ability to work and because it often means they have to help with the learning at home. They are stressed with working from home, financial concerns and the uncertainty we’re all feeling with the pandemic. Having kids learn from home also exacerbates inequality: women do more of the extra childcare and teaching; lower income families lose out the most.

Richmond single mom of two Gillian Burnett said B.C. will have a revolution on its hands come September, if kids face losing out on several days of education per week. She would prefer to see classes live streamed in real time on days children are not in school.

“There will be a mass exodus to private schools by those who can afford it, and serious protests ... by those who can’t,” Burnett said in a letter to school officials. “My children — and all of our children — deserve better.”

B.C. will announce plans for schools in September on August 20. The same schedule as June could be used, or schools may open up a bit more – perhaps full-time for elementary school children and two days per week for secondary school students. If the virus is spreading, schools could revert to 100-per-cent online. If it disappears, a full reopening could occur.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming has appointed a steering committee made up of teachers, parents, First Nations and other education and public health leaders to figure it out. Their goal is to have more students in class, as long as it is safe. They will work on different scenarios, including the ability to pivot quickly if there is a second wave of infections.

Concerns are different for elementary and secondary students. Younger students are not as capable at physical distancing or wearing masks, yet playing and learning with other students is crucial for their development. The AAP is quite clear that the harms from smaller classes required by physical distancing could be greater than the risks, particularly if it means kids are at school less.

Secondary students are much more capable at physical distancing and wearing masks, but the way secondary school is taught, with students changing rooms and classmates for different subjects, makes it riskier. Teenagers are also more capable at self-directed online learning, at least in theory.

One particularly interesting idea from the AAP suggests block scheduling – where students take one course at a time in one-month blocks. That would eliminate changing classrooms entirely and if a course had to quickly pivot to being taught online, it would also eliminate the problem of students trying to juggle eight classes remotely.

Whatever the schedule may be, the first priority must be the health and safety of students and teachers.

The pediatricians caution against trying to catch up on lost academic progress, saying that pressure would add distress to both students and educators. They note the emotional impact of the pandemic, coupled with parents’ financial concerns, social isolation and systemic racial inequity mean that schools have to be prepared to deal with mental health issues. They suggest training teachers on how to support children, noting that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States.

A good start to providing that support would be to see the students face-to-face as much as possible. For the kids’ sake, let’s hope they can be back learning in school this fall.

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