Nine months into the worldwide COVID crisis—and amidst the largest spike our nation has seen yet—getting in-person education off the ground (and keeping it there) can feel like “one step forward, two steps back.”
While ample evidence exists that we can launch and sustain in-person education safely amid the pandemic, its future in districts across our country right now is tenuous. In New York City, parents feel whiplash after Mayor DeBlasio closed, then reopened buildings over the course of just days. In Chicago, district leaders have already announced students will remain in remote learning until at least February; cities from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to Sacramento have no definite plans to reopen. And in some districts—including San Bernadino, California—leaders have already announced that in-person learning won’t resume again for the remainder of the school year.
So every day that Partnership teachers and students mask up, pass through health screenings, pump out blobs of hand sanitizer, and then dig into the rituals of learning together, our actions testify to the value of learning in-person. It is truly worth the trouble and the new routines. Each precious day together, that value becomes clearer to us. A little bit like someone bending an elbow or twirling a wrist after long days confined in a cast, we appreciate the complex wonder of once-routine moves all the more as we realize that each day we can do them is a gift, not a guarantee.
Most fundamentally, there is the simple, electric impact of being together. The energy of others in a room is infectious and can contribute to learning, even separated by barriers, distance, and masks. As Trista Rivera, Dean of Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx says, “being able to feel the positive vibes others are sharing—there’s power in that. Our teachers have done a really good job of creating warmth and joy over Zoom, but there’s just something about being able to feel that in person—to see smiles in children’s eyes—the masks don’t hide that.”
Emergency room visits due to mental health issues among 5- to 17-year-olds increased by 44% from March to October 2020.
Being around others isn’t just a nice perk. As the American Psychological Association observes about the emotional impact of remote learning, “without that sense of belonging, it may be harder for kids to stay focused.” And relationships matter for more than just staying focused on the lesson at hand. “That’s the only way they learn sense of self. It’s the only way they learn language,” notes pediatric psychologist Jodi Gold.
As the CDC acknowledges, the lack of in-person connection is bringing on an secondary epidemic of existential crises: emergency room visits due to mental health issues among 5- to 17-year-olds increased by 44% from March to October 2020 over a similar period in 2019—at a time when emergency room visits by children for other reasons dropped by 43%. So being together is profoundly impactful on an elemental level.
In the language of our faith, “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people.” It is in relationships that we come to be and to know ourselves as well as others, and those relationships are far more potent and easier to sustain in person, particularly for children.
Those relationships matter for adults, too. Trista was open about her apprehension during the planning days of August, as routine activities like her commute became so much more charged. That generalized anxiety translated into nerves about starting in-person learning. “The transition truly felt OK when I saw the students. As I greeted them at the door, it hit me: we’re OK. We’re back. And we should be back.”
Students with more challenges headed into remote learning—such as English Language Learners—are falling disproportionately behind.
Relationships are far from the only reason we are finding that remote lessons—even well-conducted ones—do not match the impact of learning in person. The evidence is growing that while highly motivated, skilled, older students in strong virtual courses can do as well or better than in person, normal students and those who struggle do far worse even in high-quality remote learning. This was true before the pandemic. As results from public school districts like Fairfax County, Virginia, show now, students are failing remote classes in record numbers, and students with more challenges headed into remote learning—such as English Language Learners—are falling disproportionately behind.
We can’t deny that as caseloads of the virus rise in communities, all schools will likely need to shift to remote learning for some period this year, both to manage the staffing challenges leaders face when multiple people need to quarantine and to keep communities safe. But by maximizing time together, teachers will have established stronger relationships, systems, and academic routines, and children will face less Zoom fatigue, which will leave all better prepared to make the most of both in-person and remote learning.
It is a part of the American dream for families to work hard and sacrifice to provide their children opportunities previous generations lacked. In-person learning truly is worth the sacrifices all adults are being asked now to take on in order to preserve it, and coming to school is essential for children to gain the knowledge, skills, and socialization crucial to keep those dreams alive.
Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.