Online Learning This Fall Is Inevitable
Here’s Why & What You Need To Do To Prepare
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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Parents, it’s time to be completely open with you:
Your kids will be going to school online this fall no matter what.
For the last few months, we’ve been engaged in a heated public debate about whether and how to bring kids back to school in the midst of a global pandemic. The American Academy of Pediatrics even made the bold declaration that all conversations should begin with having kids in school in-person this fall, only to later walk their statement back after it was predictably politicized. And every family around the country—my own included—has been grappling with the gut-wrenching task of choosing between options that all seem flawed.
But by even engaging in this debate, I’m afraid we’ve done families and educators a huge disservice.
Because the truth is that online learning is going to be a fact of life for almost every child at some point this year. Whether your school is online-only for the first month or first semester, or your child’s class is shut down for multiple two-week increments every time a classmate gets a cough—your child is certain to be home learning online for a significant part of this school year.
And unfortunately, by having made such bold statements about the importance of in-person school—which I don’t disagree with—I’m afraid we’ve robbed the necessary funding and creative energy that should have been spent bolstering distance learning platforms and tackling the challenges kids face when they’re out of school.
But it’s not too late.
Accepting now the inevitability of online learning will allow all of us—parents, educators, decision-makers—to use these last few weeks to put all of our effort into the tips below and more to make distance learning as effective as possible for our kids.
WHY CONSISTENT IN-PERSON SCHOOL WON’T LAST FOR MANY KIDS
If your school has already made the decision to go online, then you can skip ahead to the next section to maximize your child’s online learning. But if your child is going to school in-person, you’ll want to read this to see why you also need to prepare for online learning at home.
There are a handful of clear reasons why consistent in-person school won’t last for most kids this fall:
1). Most Schools Aren’t Built to Prevent Spread
After focusing primarily on risk from large respiratory droplets, the WHO and many scientists have started to recognize that aerosols play an important role in spreading the virus. Aerosols are tiny droplets that hover in the air for hours—and we now know that they can be produced even by just talking.
The key to fighting spread via aerosols is a combination of wearing masks and good ventilation. Unfortunately, many schools aren’t built with excellent ventilation in mind—and packing classrooms with 15-25 students doesn’t help.
Many large school systems have already decided to start the year online-only because they know they don’t have the space, staff, funding, or structure needed to implement the necessary precautions to keep COVID from spreading in the school. Those schools that are diving in to in-person school—some with strict precautions and others with very few—are already finding out how challenging it is to bring hundreds of kids into tightly packed, poorly ventilated buildings. Over a thousand students and staff in one Georgia school district are home on quarantine as I write—just days into their new schoolyear.
2). Older Kids Spread The Virus To Each Other & Bring It Home
It’s not just the large or overcrowded schools that will inevitably face outbreaks. Even those with better spacing or smaller class sizes—namely, the private schools opening around the country—are likely to close at some point this year, if only briefly. The biggest challenge will be faced by middle schools and high schools.
Research conducted in a town in France confirms this (here and here). Comparing infection rates from before schools were closed to those after, high schoolers’ rate of infection went down while schools were closed—meaning they likely got sick from each other at school. Elementary school students had a low rate of infection to start with, and their rate didn’t change when schools were closed—meaning they likely got sick from family members at home. What this means is that middle schools and high schools are at risk for becoming hotbeds of infection, depending on what precautions are taken and how prevalent COVID is in the community.
Moreover, research from South Korea shows that people living with COVID-infected kids aged 10-19 were 4x as likely to get sick than people living with kids aged 9 or under. So not only do middle and high schoolers spread the virus to each other, they’re also bringing it home and infecting family members.
On the other hand, while middle and high schools risk becoming sources of infection, this same research indicates that elementary schools stand a much better chance of having relatively low infection rates. As a result, elementary schools should probably be among the first to reopen in communities with a low prevalence of infection.
That isn’t to say that elementary school classes won’t be subject to occasional quarantine and home learning…
3). To Do This Right, Every Kid With Any Symptom—And Their Contacts—Needs To Be Quarantined
If a classmate has COVID, then it’s clear that the rest of the class needs to be quarantined. The bigger question is what to do with students and staff when a classmate has a cough or fever, but we don’t know yet whether or not it’s COVID.
As of time of writing (August 14th), the CDC currently says you don’t need to quarantine a child and their contacts if the child has symptoms that could be due to something else—that is, unless you find out it’s COVID. This, quite simply, is an absolutely terrible recommendation in the midst of a pandemic that we are still trying to control. The truth of the matter is that not only can COVID infection be asymptomatic, when it does cause symptoms in kids those symptoms can be the same as any other childhood infection—fever, cough, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea, rash. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to reliably assume that any symptom a child shows isn’t COVID.
To actually try and get a handle on the pandemic and halt the spread, any child or adult with sick symptoms—and their close contacts—needs to be isolated until tests clearly show they are COVID-free. Certainly this hurts, especially as the fall and winter arrive, and individual schools may decide not to use this approach. But our lack of resolve in taking decisive action is exactly the reason why the pandemic is still raging within our borders while other countries have beaten it down.
We’ve looked to those other countries’ success in reopening schools as a shining example of what we can do. But those countries controlled the virus before they reopened schools. For example, I live in Maryland—a state that has better control of the virus at the moment than many others. Yet my county still has 5x the community infection prevalence that Denmark did when the latter reopened schools. Starting the schoolyear in-person in an environment quite different from Denmark’s and hoping to achieve the same outcome is a plan that’s likely to fail.
This point, it should be noted, is one of the biggest reasons why we need to achieve more widespread, rapid result testing. If a child with sick symptoms can be sent home and get accurate test results that same day, then we can keep the rest of the class in school instead of quarantine. Rapid, accurate testing might the key to keeping kids in school this year.
HOW TO MAKE ONLINE LEARNING BETTER
Alright, enough doom and gloom! Now that we’ve accepted that online learning is inevitable for at least some amount of time this year, how do we make it as effective as possible for our kids?
To answer this, I reached out to Zoie Hoffman, founder of the Hoffman Tutoring Group. Zoie and her team have been tutoring kids online for years—well before our current situation—so she knows exactly how to make an impact on kids with distance learning.
- When participating in online learning, it’s really important that students still maintain a schedule, even if it’s a loose one. Kids thrive on predictability no matter how old they are. Normally, school provides this for them, but it can be tricky when doing learning online. Write out a schedule with your child and try to stick to it as much as possible during the day- and don’t forget to keep up with a consistent bedtime.
- Breaks are SO important when it comes to learning online. Sitting in front of a computer all day isn’t pleasant for anyone, especially kids. Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time for your child to work and then have a screen-free movement break to refresh their body and mind. [This timer is great to help visualize how much time is left.]
- Having the curveball of quarantine or online learning thrown at your family really stinks, but it can be a great opportunity to help your child gain experience dealing with the unexpected. Be open with your child in an age-appropriate way about how your family is navigating difficult COVID situations. Do this when you’re feeling calm, and be sure to check in with how they’re feeling.
- It can be scary and nerve-wracking having to help your child with subjects in which you don’t feel confident. There are great online resources for all subjects that can help you and your child as they work. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to family members and professionals who might be able to help.
- Even though your child isn’t physically going to school, try to help them keep up the practice of writing in a planner or calendar. This is a great opportunity for your student to learn how to keep track of their assignments with your support and guidance.
- Don’t forget that you can still reach out to your child’s teacher when you have concerns. Be sure to keep a friendly tone and remember that they’re struggling with online learning as well. Think of it as a team effort in a situation that is less than ideal for everyone.
Other key steps you can take include:
- As best you can, have a dedicated area for your child to work. Consider it her schooldesk. Keep it organized and distraction-free.
- Do your best to ensure your child is getting enough sleep and physical activity. It’s these simple things that help kids do their best in school, whether in-person or online.
- Consider scheduling outdoor social time with a small number of friends. As long as kids can keep their appropriate distance, spending time outdoors with a few friends may be the best opportunity for in-person socialization.
- If your family is struggling with access to good devices or internet, reach out to your school—many large districts are lending out Chromebooks and working with internet providers to offer free or discounted internet plans.
- If your child is preschool-aged and you’re looking for learning opportunities, 10-Minute Preschool is a great series on YouTube (shameless plug: my wife, Monica Silvestro, is the host!).
- Remember that you can reach out to experienced online tutors like Zoie Hoffman for personalized help if your child is struggling. Contact Zoie here.
OTHER ISSUES WE MUST TACKLE CREATIVELY
There are, of course, reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics and others pushed so heavily for in-person education this fall. Kids receive all kinds of support and benefits from being in schools.
But knowing that being out of school for some length of time is inevitable, we need to direct concerted effort toward tackling these challenges creatively—and now.
- Food. We know that many children rely on schools for food. Some areas addressed this in the spring by offering meal pickup at schools. Better still, we can look to the approach used by the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative. Since the spring, they have been delivering meals and other needed goods to people quarantined and identified through their extensive contact tracing program. This approach fills many vital needs—it creates jobs and, by keeping quarantined families fed, it helps ensure that quarantining is followed.
- Special Learning Needs. Families of children with learning disabilities are among the most concerned about online-only learning—and with good reason. But experts like Zoie Hoffman have been working remotely and online for years to help kids with learning challenges. School systems might consider working with such experienced online educators to support those kids who need the most help.
- Mental Health. This time has been stressful for kids and teens as much as it has for adults. I and other pediatricians have seen concerns about anxiety and depression climb. Accepting that kids and teens will be spending much of this schoolyear at home is the vital start to directing dollars and creative energy toward screening for mental health issues and addressing them when they arise.
INSTRUCTION VS. EDUCATION
A college professor of mine once pointed out that there is a real difference between “instruction” and “education,” and it’s evident in the roots of the words:
Instruction comes from the Latin instruer, which means “to pile upon.”
Education’s Latin root is educere, which is “to lead out.”
None of us—pediatricians, parents, and teachers alike—are thrilled about the inevitability of distance learning this fall. But to deny its inevitability is a mistake, as an underfunded, second-thought online learning approach will at best be a resource for instruction—throwing information at students, piling it up, and hoping something sticks.
Instead, by recognizing at the start that online learning will be a reality for almost every student, we can better give full care and attention to creatively developing a platform for education—bringing out the best in our children and our communities in the months ahead.