GUEST EDITORIAL: The Case for Virtual & In-Person Options for Schools

“Georgia schools have become a breeding ground for this pandemic.”      


This quote was attributed to my legislative colleagues by CBS Channel 46 News. When I contacted these colleagues about this outrageous quote, one of them invited me to join him in a discussion of this issue. I eagerly agreed.


When examining this issue, we must consider all of the benefits and risks of both in-person and virtual learning options. Everyone is understandably concerned about COVID-19, and we must take this virus seriously. However, we must also consider the well-known adverse outcomes associated with a lack of in-person classroom instruction.

Generally speaking, aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school. This is why the Centers for Disease Control, The American Academy of Pediatrics and many leading experts strongly urge the resumption of in-person instruction, along with the appropriate COVID-19-related protocols.

Here are some of the reasons that all families should have the option of in-person or virtual instruction:

1.    Local Control

            Each school district should be allowed to make this decision based upon their specific circumstances. As long as proper precautions are taken into consideration, the school board’s decision should be supported. Our school board voted unanimously to allow our district to provide families with the option of either virtual or in-person instruction. Almost 80 percent of our families chose the in-person option.

2.    Learning

            There’s no doubt that the best educational approach is face-to-face instruction. The vast majority of students who attend virtual school will not progress as quickly as those who experience in-person instruction because students tend to be less engaged in a virtual environment. For example, 20 percent of high school students in Boston didn’t log into class in May, and only half of elementary school students in Philadelphia made daily contact. Further, the virtual only option will disproportionately affect low-income and minority students and students with disabilities and result in increased racial and social inequalities, the impact of which will last for years. Many low-income families do not have the ability to support distance learning due to limited access to internet and/or other technology, and these students also often rely on school-supported resources like food, special education services, counseling and after-school programs.

3.    Options

            No one is being forced to return to school in-person. In my district, teachers were given the option of virtual or other duties, which would minimize in-person interaction if they were uncomfortable or in an at-risk group. It is understandable that some families have greater health concerns than others, but why force everyone into virtual learning?

4.    Mental Health

            Not attending school in-person can be harmful to a child’s mental health and increase the likelihood that they will engage in unhealthy behaviors. Children who attend school in-person have lower levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, social anxiety and sexual activity, and they have higher levels of self-esteem. Many children rely on their school counselor for crucial mental health and social service resources.

5.    Social & Emotional Skill Development

            Schools play a critical role in supporting the whole child, not just their academic achievements. In addition to structured learning setting, schools also provide a stable and secure environment for students to develop social skills and peer relationships. Extended school building closures will be harmful to children’s development. These skills cannot be developed as well with virtual education. For children with disabilities, this is absolutely essential.

6.    Safety

            Schools provide children who live in unsafe homes and neighborhoods with an important layer of protection from neglect, physical, sexual, and emotional maltreatment and abuse. Educators are responsible for 20 percent of all reported child abuse cases. Children who are experiencing neglect, violence or abuse, but who are not physically in school, are deprived of access to trained professionals who can readily identify the signs of trauma and provide needed support and guidance.

7.    Nutrition

            Extended school closures can be harmful to the nutritional health of children. Schools are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of children, with many consuming up to half of their daily calories at school. For low-income families, school meals are an especially critical source of affordable, healthy meals. 

8.    Single working parents

            A disproportionate burden of working from home is falling on single parents. Many parents are now working two extra jobs: household manager and home-schooling supervisor. This widens another gap in our society, as working single parents risk either dropping out of the workplace or face career advancement challenges that many two parent homes, and those without children, don’t experience.

9.    In-Person instruction facilitates physical activity

            When schools are closed, children lose access to important opportunities for physical activity. Many children may not be as physically active outside of the context of in-school physical education and other school-based activities. The loss of opportunities for physical activity from school closures, especially when coupled with potentially diminished nutrition, can be particularly harmful to children. 

10. There is no evidence that closing schools will control COVID-19 transmission

            There is no current research to prove that closing school campuses will help us to control the transmission of COVID-19. However, there is plenty of research that highlights the negative impacts that can affect students who don’t attend school in-person.

Conclusion

            Schools play a critical role in the framework of our communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians and caregivers to work.  Schools provide critical services that help meet the needs of children and families, especially those who are low-income, minorities and those with disabilities. School building closures hinder learning and prohibit the delivery of critical services to children and families. The best available data from countries with in-person instruction indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to drive the spread of the virus. As long as every precaution is taken, the benefits of in-person instruction far outweigh the risks of the spread of COVID-19.

 

Representative Wes Cantrell represents the citizens of District 22, which includes portions of Cherokee, Forsyth and Fulton counties. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014 and currently serves as Chairman of the Small Business Development Committee and as Secretary of the Information and Audits Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications, Education and Juvenile Justice committees.