Eighth-grader: Online learning isn’t good enough and other reasons schools should open

This new post continues that debate, this time written by Alma Barak, a 13-year-old eighth-grade public school student in Cambridge who once had Levine as her teacher. The teen disagrees with her former teacher, saying that she thinks remote learning is insufficient and offers other reasons for why she thinks schools should reopen.

The 2020-21 school year has already started in some districts around the country. In some places, schools have opened for students who want to go, while others have decided it is still too risky. Like the novel coronavirus, the conversation about how to educate kids during the pandemic isn’t going away.

By Alma Barak

I don’t know how things are run in your city or town, but in many cities, including Cambridge, Mass., where I live, schools are going to stay online this coming year. This is because many feel that it would be difficult, unsafe and unrewarding to host in-person schools. They worry that children will forget social distancing rules and that the disease will get out of control.

Rose Levine, who was my creative, hilarious and hard-working fifth-grade teacher, wrote recently on this blog that in-person teaching would actually be “more traumatic than the inadequate and painful experience of remote learning” and said that children wouldn’t get the same learning experience anyway. Even in school, she said, students would be distant and uncomfortable, and the air would be filled with constant warnings about being too close.

Although all of these concerns are valid, other countries have succeeded in this challenging task. In Denmark, for example, they have managed to keep the infections down while also reopening schools by utilizing outdoor space, masks, shorter hours and other tools.

And any sort of schooling is a relief, especially for working parents who also need to take care of their kids, who are suffering too. Children need the social connections schools offer, and they need a higher level of education than what they can get from an online program. Schools should offer at least some non-online options, in parks or indoors, to give kids opportunities and parents some time to work.

“Wouldn’t online education be just as good?” skeptical readers may ask. It may seem so, but most schools have no real experience in online teaching. Although many districts started teaching online in March, I feel that there wasn’t investment in improving online schooling, as the coronavirus was still thought to be a temporary issue.

University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski wrote in the New York Times that “for most children, the school year effectively ended in March.” This seems right to me, as I feel that I did not learn much in school from March onward. The trial run in March was not a real attempt at online learning, because it did not properly prepare teachers to supply kids with the education they need.

Furthermore, it is difficult for many children to focus during virtual classes. This is particularly evident in younger children, like my 8-year old brother and his classmates. My brother has a longer attention span than most kids his age, yet even he experiences lapses in concentration online. I’ve seen him blanking out, staring at his books or simply acting up, tired of the long hours in front of his computer.

In fact, many of my brother’s friends couldn’t join him in an online camp simply because they could not stay long enough in front of a screen without being distracted. How can such children learn school material online if they can’t even focus enough to participate in a fun, online summer camp?

“Surely kids can just go to a separate program, or get a tutor, if the district’s online schooling will be so bad,” parents may think. It is true that some children can afford to get extra education in addition to their schoolwork, but there are also many who can’t. The inexperienced online schooling will only make a greater divide between those with less and more financial advantage. Those who can afford it will be educated and ready to come back to school once the shutdown ends.

On the other hand, those who are financially challenged will bumble through those later grades. They will be unprepared for the more advanced and rigorous schoolwork of in-person education after the ineffective online program.

Although, as mentioned above, others have claimed that face-to-face instruction in the coming year will do more harm than good, I think differently. Live teaching will be taught better, will capture students’ attention and lessen the divide in the quality of education students are receiving.

Moreover, education is not the only important aspect of school. In school, a child builds connections and creates projects with their classmates, who often include kids very different from them. These kids teach them different cultures, social cues and how to get along well with someone, even if they don’t want to be their friend. Without school, these valuable social lessons are lost on children. Pediatrician Ronald Dahl was quoted in an Atlantic article saying that social skills are “like a sport” that “you need to practice.”

Typically, kids get this practice simply by talking with other children, but now that has become harder. Speaking over Zoom is not the same. You can’t chat with someone on the way to your next class, or whisper a comment to the student next to you. Whatever you say will be heard by everyone in the classroom, loudly and clearly, which robs children of social communications. Many students, especially those who don’t have a group of close friends, need in-person schooling for the social lessons and the opportunity to chat, both with friends and with people more distant.

Indeed, online schooling will be tough for children, yet it will also be difficult for the adults in their lives. From personal experience, I can see how having my brother and me at home has weighed on both of my parents. My dad is often late to meetings because he has to make sure we are in our classes on time. Many times we talk too loud, unaware that he is in a video call with a colleague. Sometimes he calls my mom, a physical therapist, for advice on taking care of us, oblivious that she is with a patient.

My parents are weary and only wish that there was something to keep us kids out of the house and fill the role that school once occupied. Many teachers are parents, too, and they are also having a hard time managing to teach online and take care of their children. As a result, teaching will not be at its best this coming year. Teachers too would benefit from in-person schooling, as they would finally be able to turn their full attention to the classroom.

There are obvious safety concerns with opening schools, but even an occasional lesson in a park would be nice. The children that live near the park can go for the day to learn a lesson. Those who don’t could do some worksheets or online work, and know that the teachers would come to their area one day soon. Some might worry that weather issues would interfere with lessons outside. I think that there are always solutions, such as putting up tents, or in severe cases just canceling the lesson.

By sharing this in-person teaching option, I am trying to communicate that there are a number of creative solutions to schooling difficulties if we care to look outside the box of schooling that is either online or inside school buildings.

Naturally, parents, children and teachers are afraid of getting covid-19. But a lesson outside with socially distanced students and teachers should be safe. And kids can always simply not to go if they are too worried and just do the online work.

Some in-person teaching is possible this year, and parents, their children and their colleagues would greatly benefit from it. Online schooling will affect children, their parents and their parents’ co-workers. Forty percent of U.S. households have school-age children. Even if you don’t have a youngster yourself, you most likely know and care about at least one child. You cannot stand idly by while half of the population is suffering because of online schooling. Virtual education hurts children socially, it will deny children the quality of education they need, and it causes a struggle for parents too.

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