Are There Better Alternatives to Online School?

March 12th, 2020 was the last day of in-person school for a lot of students; the rest of the in-person school year was cut short due to the outbreak of COVID-19. In early July students were given the option of going back to school in the Fall with restrictions, or to participate in their classes virtually. Responses were due on July 28th. But just two short days later in a letter sent to PHM families on July 30th, the recommendation for a virtual school year was made and had an outlined plan. On August 4th, another letter was sent out stating that PHM students will attend school virtually until September 11th, but if the number of cases in St. Joseph County is still high; the go-back date will be extended (Return to School Update). But what is the best option for students? 

A letter was sent to PHM families by superintendent Dr.Thacker that stated how the St. Joseph County Department of Health “strongly recommend[s] that [schools] open in a virtual learning environment” (Return To School Update). For PHM this would entail students getting assignments through Canvas, Google Classroom, their PHM provided email, Zoom, and Google Drive. Other things this may include are limited contact with teachers, empty classrooms, not seeing friends every day, and much more. Ultimately, I think students would benefit from in-person school because it’d be better for their mental health, provide more valuable experiences, and promote better learning. 

For most students, virtual learning would mean being socially isolated, which can harm mental health. Social isolation has been shown to have numerous effects such as “depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, and poor cardiovascular function” (American Psychological Association). Now according to WebMD, when executive function isn’t working properly in their brain people may have issues with “go[ing] to school” and “Do[ing] things independently” (WebMD, Executive Function). For students to succeed doing online school they will need to work independently and do school work. If they have difficulty doing these things, they won’t succeed in school. 

There are many things you can learn inside the classroom that aren’t academic-related. Michelle Miller from Northern Arizona University says “Experts agree that the power of online learning doesn’t come from the content itself, but rather from the active engagement students have with that content, with the faculty, and with one another” (The Hill).

 An example of this is how my American Sign Language teacher has taught me so many valuable lessons, one is how little it takes to harm people on social media. I only learned this from her because someone was talking about TikTok in our class and she had brought up that point. What she was saying made sense because just typing something mean is easy while saying it is so much harder. These kinds of discussions may occur less when tasks are being given from Canvas.

Mental health is not only stigmatized by society but isn’t considered enough when making big decisions like going back to school. A group of students in California were interviewed by Ed Source reporters (a California based news station) about their experience with online learning, one class of 2022 student mentioned that her mental health was “never great, but controllable” then once quarantine started she felt “mentally exhausted”, has been “really emotional” and “gets sad over little things” (EdSource). Another class of 2022 student said how she doesn’t “feel motivated” because “there is nobody my age” (EdSource). Kids thrive when they’re around peers because they want to push themselves and are challenged, but when that factor is taken away it leaves feelings of emptiness which is a symptom of depression. School is supposed to be a place where children feel safe and uplifted. But When you take that place away and put it into a computer, it brings kids down instead of up. 

The issues that those students in California are experiencing aren’t all that uncommon. School is a good excuse to see friends, socialize, and foster a healthy environment. When I asked how quarantine affected my friends’ mental health one of them named Maddie Banke mentioned how quarantine just “mentally drained” her. That is a normal response to social isolation. I experienced similar feelings, but on bad days going to school and socializing would be what kept the spiral from continuing. A lot of people experience these feelings as a result of not knowing how to cope with social isolation. VeryWell Mind a website devoted to understanding the inner workings of the mind suggested to “establish routines” and “be as active as possible” (Cherry) when quarantine is making you feel drained. School provides routine and opportunities to be active, which is yet another reason why kids need in-person instruction.

Screenshot of answers from my Instagram poll

When I asked the question “how did virtual learning this spring negatively affect you?” to my Instagram followers, many students took the opportunity to voice their opinions. The conclusion? Students weren’t learning. One class of 2020 senior said how teachers “assigned busywork rather than teaching us”. While the transition to online wasn’t easy for most teachers, a lot of them adapted to the change. But some didn’t and it would later reflect in their students’ grades. Class of 2023 student Layla Varga said how she “felt it was hard to ask questions because not all teachers would respond quickly”. Jamie Hurst from the class of 2022 added on by saying how the lack of in-person learning led her to “not understanding the material as much” because when she needed to ask questions it felt “so much harder.” So if online learning continues, some students won’t be learning much of anything. This could have bad repercussions like test scores declining and having a generation of students who got only half of the education that they deserved so they grow into adults who don’t care as much.

Usually, when you’re sick you might take a few days off from school, email your teachers to let them know you’ll be back, and catch up when you feel better. For some reason, the same standards don’t apply during online school. I had a chance to text with a class of 2023 student Jane* (names were changed for anonymity)  about her experience of being sick for 2 and a half this spring closer to the end of the school year. She said that she got tested for COVID-19 but when the test came back negative and turned out to be just a “bad case of Strep Throat,” she tried to keep up with online learning but struggled since a lot of time was “spent resting and trying to recover.” When she was feeling better and logged onto Canvas she found “over 50 missing assignments”. Which you can imagine is a lot to complete. Most of Jane’s teachers “were very accommodating” to the situation and excused her from less important assignments and gave time extensions on them. Other teachers provided no “leverage for when I asked for some relief” from the number of missing assignments giving little to no extension and expecting every assignment complete. Also, Jane* mentioned how the amount of stress she was “having to handle was unbelievable”. Students could be way less stressed if school was in person because the workload may have been smaller and physically seeing that she was sick may have sparked more compassion in teachers. 

Every student has a different home life, some may have two parents working from home, others might not, maybe one has a sibling to watch, another might be lucky enough to be an only child. In school, a more level playing field, students are expected to meet standards for growth and learning. However, when students must learn from home, their home life situations are different–some more distracting, some with fewer resources. Holding all students to the same standards can become problematic and even unfair. 

I had a chance to talk to a class of 2022 student Phoebe* about her experience while managing to step up and help out her parents because they were essential workers. She has two brothers ages 4 and 13. During the weekdays she babysat her 4-year-old brother from “early in the morning till late afternoon”, she also had to keep her 13-year-old brother “on track with his schoolwork”. This left her very little time to do her E-learning, so Phoebe* was staying up “late into the night just to work on schoolwork” and make ends meet. Then she had to wake up early the next morning to take care of her brothers. For a growing adolescent, she expressed how this was “not only mentally but physically exhausting too”. Phoebe* experienced a lot of difficulty dividing up her time between watching her brother, keeping grades up, and also “studying for the AP tests”. You can probably imagine how complicated it is for someone to juggle all of these responsibilities, and how much easier it is when you only have to deal with one of these tasks. But if a regular school were in session, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue because kids wouldn’t have to babysit siblings during the day and could get work done at school. 

COVID-19 does pose a large health risk (CDC), but other factors should be considered when making a big decision such as an extended period of eLearning and social isolation. Mental health, in-school experiences, home situations, quality of information being taught, make-up work, and the amount of information being retained are all very important factors. Children should be allowed to thrive. Many parents have expressed their opinions on social media such as Facebook and Twitter about how they think school should not be closed. PHM was prepared to go back to school, with restrictions. They were prepared to let students be students again, but that could all change. 

*Names have been changed for anonymity

References

Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash

Bhandari, Smitha. “Executive Function Disorder & Executive Functioning Skills.” WebMD, WebMD, 25 Mar. 2019, www.webmd.com/add-adhd/executive-function.

“Certain Medical Conditions and Risk for Severe COVID-19 Illness.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html.

Cherry, Kendra. “How Does Quarantine Affect Your Mental Health?” Verywell Mind, 18 Mar. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/protect-your-mental-health-during-quarantine-4799766.

“Executive Functions.” Memory and Aging Center, memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/executive-functions.

Hou, Chia-Yi. “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” TheHill, 1 July 2020, thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/prevention-cures/505452-the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-online.

“Return to School Update July 30, 2020: Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation.” Return to School Update July 30, 2020 | Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, 30 July 2020, www.phmschools.org/news/jul-2020/return-school-update-july-30-2020.

“The Risks of Social Isolation.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, May 2019, www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation.

staff, EdSource. “Student Perspectives: the Pros and Cons of Distance Learning.” EdSource, EdSource, 4 June 2020, edsource.org/2020/student-perspectives-the-pros-and-cons-of-distance-learning/632498.