OPINION: Learning is being lost, in-person education should safely return and improve

Joy Webb 

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I am deeply worried about what staring at a screen all day — from a home situation that is not guaranteed to be ideal for learning — does to a 7-year-old, first-grade elementary student. Humans need connection, especially to learn.  

     At least I’m able to recognize how this form of learning is impacting me as a student, but for a K-12 learner, this time is especially detrimental to learning and development.  

     As someone with ADHD, a hands-on and visual-learner, I cannot imagine what it would be like trying to do online school as a younger child over the past year. Being separated from classmates and teachers during the years that are foundational to learning how to read and write is stunting learning and literacy.  

     I worry about the loss of learning that is happening on an academic level, but especially on a social level. During my second-grade school year, I learned a lot about how to communicate, interact with other kids my age, and overall, how to connect and socialize. How has this pandemic affected these younger generations socially, emotionally, academically?  

     Younger students are not the only ones being affected and not learning. As a college student in my senior year, I can say without a doubt that I have not learned effectively over this past year. I feel unmotivated, as if I am just going through the motions, staring at a screen almost all day, doing twice the amount of schoolwork and never seeing my classmates’ faces. How could anyone really learn under these circumstances? 

     I’m also a philosophy and English major, which are both areas of study that rely on and require the interaction, discussion, argument and Socratic-style communication that is fundamentally impossible through a computer screen. Learning happens through connection. As much as I love reading ancient Greek philosophy that a dead dude wrote a very long time ago alone, it makes very little sense and really does not even matter until I get to sit in a room face-to-face with my classmates and philosophize.  

     This semester, I’m taking my senior thesis class, and it is entirely remote. We meet virtually every other week, and the only person with their screen on is my professor. We are all writing thesis papers that are around 40 pages long, and there is minimal interaction. It is not ideal. 

     As if the American education wasn’t concerning enough, a new study suggests that the coronavirus will undo months of academic gains, leaving many students behind. The authors project that students will start the new school year with an average of 66% of the learning gains in reading and 44% of the learning gains in math, relative to the gains for a typical school year.  

Photo courtesy of Chuttersnap and Unsplash.com

     But the situation is worse on the reading front, as researchers also predict that the top third of students will make gains, possibly because they’re likely to continue reading with their families while schools are closed, thus widening the achievement gap, according to Edutopia.org.  

     The achievement gap will widen, and those who are more privileged in the class system will benefit. The study also says that “few school systems provide plans to support students who need accommodations or other special populations.” This will negatively impact students with disabilities or students who are disadvantaged, especially financially. Special needs students and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners will be impacted severely.   

     According to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis, “17 percent of teenagers have difficulty completing homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection. For Black students, the number spikes to 25 percent.” 

     The damage that the pandemic has done in terms of mental health and education systems falling apart in the virtual setting is concerning. This is especially apparent and alarming with student suicide rates. Mental health directly impacts a person’s capacity to learn. 

     Psychology Today said that “results from the most recent winter/spring survey administration of over 55,000 students indicate that slightly more than one in 10 (14 percent) experienced suicidal ideation over the past year. More than half say they somewhat to strongly needed help for emotional or mental problems, yet 9 percent said they would not talk to anyone if they were experiencing serious emotional distress.  

     “In a lecture hall of 50 college students, this means that about seven of them may have considered suicide this past year, and five of them would not talk to anyone about their distress.” 

     According to a study from JED, these statistics were found: 

  • A combined 63% of students say that their emotional health is worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic and 56% of students are significantly concerned with their ability to care for their mental health. 
  • A high proportion of students are dealing with anxiety (82%), followed by social isolation/loneliness (68%), depression (63%), trouble concentrating (62%) and difficulty coping with stress in a healthy way (60%). One in five students (19%) have had suicidal thoughts in the past month. 

     Concerns about racial equity related to rallies or protests is top of mind for students at this time, with 61% of students feeling extremely or very concerned about racial unrest in this country. Thirty-four percent of students are concerned about the effects of racial unrest in their own communities. 

     According to Lieberman, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, “Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates.”  

     “What this suggests is that becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival,” Lieberman said. “In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social.” 

     No wonder students are depressed, anxious, unmotivated and cannot learn. We are being forced to continue our “education” under impossible circumstances. Now that more people are getting vaccinated, and we are beginning to become more efficient in social distancing practices, students should have the option to go to in-person classes or school.  

     Some students are not getting school breakfasts or lunches; some students might have a home life that is not ideal for learning; some students might not have reliable technology or internet connections; some students might not have any support system.  

     Not only does education need to safely return to in-person, but the American education system has to do better. In an article by the Denver Post, it was found that “according to a new survey conducted by the Colorado Education Association, 40 percent of licensed teachers across the state said they are weighing an exit from the profession after the 2020-21 school year, as are 33 percent of professionals in education support roles.”  

     The teachers aren’t treated well, and the students aren’t treated well, but I know one thing: we need each other to learn, to grow, to be mentally healthy.  

     Something has to change, and I hope that vaccines begin to help us resume in-person learning, but it needs to be sooner rather than later. I’m worried for my generation and for college students in general, but I’m especially worried for K-12 students. Learning is crucial for overall well-being, and I cannot learn from this 13-inch screen that hurts my eyes.