Within recent months, the world has seen tremendous amounts of stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving to online learning in the spring of 2020 was a difficult task for most students, and transitioning to a hybrid scenario is a big difference from what most students are used to. In the case of Kennebunk High School in Kennebunk, Maine, students have been given the option to either return to school two days out of the week and stay home for the remaining three days, or they can remain entirely remote, not attending in-person classes at all. This leads to questions that many students, parents, and teachers are asking: is hybrid or remote learning more favorable, and will everyone be able to survive isolation and separation?
Isolation is not for everyone. Of course, there are those who enjoy their time alone more than anything else in the day, but many people depend on their social day-to-day activities to process all of life’s circumstances. The Mayo Clinic has found that during periods of isolation, students whose brains are still developing are more prone to depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or actions, and extreme stress when they are separated from their friends, activities, and schoolwork. In addition, for many students, school is a safe place where they feel free to express themselves however they please. When students can’t go to school, they are more susceptible to feeling unstructured and unable to get away from uncomfortable home situations. Home is not always a safe place, and in the past, school was an escape for many students. According to the same study done at the Mayo Clinic, “research shows that loneliness in kids, especially over extended periods, is linked with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in the following years.” When school is taken away from adolescents and they are forced to stay in possible unsafe home environments, the risk of depression and anxiety is at an even higher rate. Moreover, psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s “attachment theory” emphasizes the harm caused by separation; when students go from seeing their classmates daily, interacting at social school events such as lunch, and communicating face-to-face with teachers to living with extreme restrictions on their social lives, it can be traumatizing and life-altering. Personally, I consider myself a hard-working student, yet I often find myself distracted when learning online, so I can’t imagine the difficulty students with ADHD and other learning disabilities undertake. Human life desires connection, so when young adolescents are disconnected from the aspects of their relationships that helped them flourish in the past, it is extremely hard to adjust. This adjustment is so difficult for young students and young adults because their brains are still developing, and up until now, they have always had a sense of structure and routine in their daily lives.
Structure is essential, and according to Jena Lee, MD, medical director of pediatric consultation/liaison and emergency psychiatry, “the consistency of schedules, predictable rules and consequences, and set expectations teach children how to behave, develop self-discipline and impulse control and, importantly, a sense of safety and control…we often see an exacerbation of behavioral problems in our pediatric patients when their routine or structure is disturbed.” Therefore, when structure is disrupted and attention spans drop, students are prone to mistakes, and possible psychological and emotional issues may arise. In school, students have resources such as social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, nurses, and administrators to receive guidance in various forms. In many cases, students feel more comfortable going to a third party such as a guidance counselor or a teacher because of possible unsafe home life. While many can argue that students can do the same online, it’s not as simple as it sounds. According to the CDC, “among children ages 9-17, it is estimated that 21%, over 14 million children, experience some type of mental health condition. Yet only 16 percent of those with a condition receive any treatment. Of those, 70-80 percent received such care in a school setting.” It is evident that students do feel more comfortable in school settings, and it is crucial that schools stay open, even partially, when dealing with students in this position. Along with emotional support, schools also provide nutritional needs and physical activity. According to the CDC, “nationwide more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program… [and] current models estimate that childhood obesity rate may increase by 2.4 percent if school closures continue to December 2020.” This illustrates the active support schools give to students with financial instability. If the students involved in a meal program aren’t supported remotely, financial issues would continue to be a problem for the family, even more so during a pandemic that is taking away millions of jobs. This can cause students to either eat less or much more, completely throwing off their nutritional balance.
It is crucial that state officials and communities try their best to improve some semblance of normality within the lives of students in regard to mental health and education. While it may not be safe to return fully to the lifestyle of the past, substitutes can be carried out in a safe and cultivated manner. Many districts have resorted to a hybrid approach, and have been sectioning students into two different groups and observing two days for each group to return to school. While going to school for only two days a week is still drastically different from what most students are accustomed to, it is a compromise necessary in the pandemic. One of the most prominent advantages of hybrid learning is its aspect of differentiation. Students can learn at different rates and in different styles than before, and they can be better accommodated to fulfill their highest potential in academics. Teachers and professors can incorporate different styles to teach students at home and help them gain the tools that they need to move forward. While hybrid learning has its advantages for some, when students are physically in school they compose a better sense of accomplishment, are more productive, accumulate better communication skills, gain critical thinking skills, and form a greater sense of discipline. When remote, it is much more difficult for students to achieve these things.
While everyone’s experience is different, I can speak for multiple students and say that distance education is often a challenge. For me, it is manageable, but for many students including some of my closest peers, they cannot handle it. These days, it is especially easy for high school students to fall behind, and now it is easy to stay home and disregard academic responsibilities. More and more students are not getting the help they need because they do not have the motivation to show up and get work done. Students need structure to move forward in the education system that is within the United States, and without school, there is little structure. Therefore, if it is safe enough to reopen schools (and the CDC guidelines are followed correctly and effectively), going to school even for two days a week is much more beneficial than staying completely closed and distant.
In the end, it will always be the family’s decision to send their kids back to school, because large gatherings such as school can be dangerous in this time of crisis. Everyone should have the right to choose because every student is different. Some find comfort in the flexible and comfortable structure of distance learning. Many have more time to think, can relax, and stay in the comfort of their rooms where they feel more independent, and develop a better digital sense. While all of these advantages of distance education are comfortable, it doesn’t allow students to get out of their comfort zone. The most significant part of life is learning and living outside of your comfort zone because it’s in that space where you can learn new and amazing things about yourself. An extra two days in the classroom would provide this sense of learning.
The future is unpredictable, and it is uncertain what will happen with the coronavirus numbers within the United States, but it is important to note that students will not develop the same when they are completely remote in terms of their education. In this situation, many argue that staying remote is the safest option, and while this may be true, is it the safest for the future of high school and college students? According to educator M. Dennis in Higher Education Opportunities after COVID-19, “the pandemic’s aftermath will cause a six-month to five-year disruption [and] it is also predicted that there will be a 15% to 25% decline in enrollment.” While this year has been one of destruction and tribulations, “the overall post-secondary student enrollment has been seeing a yearly decline of 1% to 2%, while the number of students taking online courses grows 5% annually,” according to a joint report by the Boston Consulting Group and Arizona State University. This data shows that the near future will look much different from the past. More and more students are finding comfort in digital learning and are deciding to continue on that route. Students are discovering that college might not be the option for them, as it may be too dangerous during the pandemic, or that a collegiate education just isn’t for them.
Without a doubt, there is no correct way to go about the situation of education during COVID-19, but there are ways to enhance our limited encounters and social events. Keeping schools open, even just two or three days out of the week, would substantially help the majority of students in various communities. Being in school helps students grow to their fullest potential while gaining necessary social skills. One of the biggest factors that play in this decision is the mental and emotional aspect of education because so many students cannot get the resources they need when fully remote. Students need engagement, interaction, commitment, and structure, and without school, it is too difficult for students to navigate on their own.