Opinion: Schools Need to Stay Open So Students Remain Mentally Healthy

It was a school night like any other. I was at Walmart buying groceries with a couple of friends, and the excitement of spring break bubbled in the air. 

Suddenly, I got a phone call that changed the course of the next six months of my life. 

“You’re coming home,” my mom said in an urgent tone. “We don’t feel comfortable with you going to Florida with your friends.” 

The next day at 6 a.m. I was on flight back to Santo Domingo, my home city in the Dominican Republic. A few days later, the rest of my junior year at Liberty University was thrown completely online. Being abruptly disconnected from my friends, suddenly being home in another country and having to learn how to juggle all my classes in an online format was an unprecedented challenge.

Although most college students are used to taking classes online, all the changes that COVID-19 brought to education have impacted students of all ages. These new differences will continue if schools are to remain closed even as we welcome a new academic year. According to UNESCO, toward the end of the 2019-2020 school year, most states in the U.S. mandated school closures.  Like Liberty University and other colleges across the country, these schools were forced to finish out the year remotely. According to Ballotpedia, however, only 12 out of the 50 states, Virginia included, have ordered schools to be held remotely as we begin this new school year. 

This may prove scary for many, given that coronavirus is still fairly new, but keeping  kids away from their education is just as, if not more, frightening. 

Remote learning is also a new concept, one that technology has made possible. Through technology, academic institutions are given the opportunity to provide education via an online format. Although this seems like the perfect solution for schools in the midst of a pandemic, the reality is that it’s not so perfect. 

According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 19 million Americans, which accounts for 6% of the population, still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. This means that many schoolchildren in America will not be able to benefit from their education if it continues to remain in a remote state. Even those schools that choose to reopen will have to make up for all the time lost during the end of the last school year. John King Jr., president of the Education Trust, shared on NPR radio that although summer learning loss is significant for low-income children, it will not compare to the substantial loss that they have been subject to due to schools closing earlier in the year because of coronavirus. King said  even the places that do distance-learning well should expect significant loss for students. Most American teachers and  students have not been trained for distance learning.

Many are suggesting that schools should give up distance-learning altogether and that parents should dedicate themselves to home schooling their children throughout this pandemic. This is not a viable option either, considering over 60%  of American households consist of two employed parents. Most parents don’t have the luxury of staying home and teaching their children academics because they are busy providing for their families instead. 

In an article published by Reaching Higher NH, teachers discussed the detrimental effect that remote learning is already having on students’ mental health. Although this effect varies depending on the age and grade each student is in, teachers agreed that their mental health is suffering. This is not a risk we can continue to take. 

Shutting schools down nationwide last academic year was necessary because we were all facing a global threat that was completely unknown. However, it was not without its share of collateral damage. Not only were students impacted academically, with many being left behind in their learning, but they were also impacted emotionally, being deprived from the basic need of human interaction among their peers.

Although schools must proceed with caution and should take all the necessary measures to keep students, faculty and staff safe, schools must open. The students need it — there is no question about it.            

Rosa Elias is an opinion writer. Follow her on Twitter at @rosaeliasnajri.

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