For students, teachers and parents alike, this has been a difficult school year. While no family has faced the exact same challenges as any other, many have had to adapt and struggle through a variety of adverse circumstances. It is a testament to the resilience of our population that most have done as well as they have, given the extraordinary situation we have all faced in 2020.
With all of the obstacles we have had to overcome this year, there is still another looming ahead: returning to school.
Right now, there is no way to know exactly what this will look like. While it may be a straightforward return to the way things were before the pandemic, chances are great that there will be a new paradigm for school attendance.
Learning at home: six issues students have faced
As the population returns to in-person school, parents, teachers and other leaders will have to help some students re-adjust and cope after several months of dealing with the following issues.
One tremendous issue for some students is the lack of necessary technology to keep up with classes and schoolwork. This is a secondary problem created by poverty in many cases. With classes being taught on Zoom and other video platforms, students need up-to-date computers and a good internet connection in order simply to attend. There have been stories of young people having to sit in the parking lot of fast-food restaurants or libraries in order to access a good wi-fi connection – a situation which is unreasonable in any case and made more so when temperatures drop in the winter. Homework assignments, study aids and teacher interaction outside of class also depends on an internet connection and a good computer.
Many students rely on school attendance to meet fundamental needs. Unfortunately, for some that includes meals; there are students who receive both breakfast and lunch from their school. Families living at or below the poverty line have had the added stress of this additional financial burden, and some students may be experiencing a gap in filling their nutritional needs.
The need to stay at home has also put a spotlight on the tragic reality of domestic abuse, which has risen in 2020. This affects student, parents and teachers as they may be witnessing abuse or experiencing it themselves. Even just living in a house where the threat exists creates a highly stressful day-to-day environment; stress which can manifest itself in both physical illness and the inability to focus on education.
For students whose parents have been required to work outside the home, there is also the problem of enforced solitude. They may be on their own in the house for many hours. This can also be true for students whose parents work at home in another part of the house. The pandemic has created widespread isolation, which is not a natural state for many students.
Lack of social development
The pandemic has also made us more aware of how much we rely on the benefits of attending school in person. For example, young people develop important social skills through the interactions they have with other students each day. Zoom or other video classes cannot match this level of engagement, since it goes well beyond the classroom setting to encompass chatter in hallways, at lunch, and before and after class.
From a more scholastic perspective, students may also lose ground somewhat during this time in their ability to focus on education. When they attend school, they are in that environment for a full 6 hours each day, though of course there is time for socializing as mentioned. At home, between classes they could be playing video games, climbing trees or sleeping – there is no official structure in place beyond what already-stressed parents are able to enforce. The same issue exists for their overall ability to follow rules, which may be suffering.
Back to school: what will be new, and what will not
Going back to in-person school will present some important changes in day-to-day activities. At the same time, some already-existing threats that may have been temporarily overlooked will once again move to paramount importance.
When students, teachers and administrators do go back to a full school day, there will be some important differences. New policies are now being put into place to help maintain health and safety of the school population. Even once there is a free or affordable vaccination available to everyone, these policies are likely to stay in place for a period of time. Everyone may be required to wear masks throughout the school day, and certain activities may be curtailed in order to enforce social distancing. There could also be a requirement to verify that you have been vaccinated before returning.
Existing security concerns
Before the pandemic hit, there were already many serious issues faced by school districts. In-school violence, active shooters and other security concerns have not disappeared, and are likely to move back into the headlines once students are back in class. It is vitally important that schools continue to take measures to improve their ability to respond quickly to an emergency. The threat of disease may have pushed some of these initiatives to the back burner. It is crucial that they be addressed now, before the promise of in-school learning becomes a reality again.
It will surely be a relief to parents, students and teachers to be able once again to enter the school building each day. When that becomes reality, we must be prepared to keep everyone safe and secure in every possible way.