Whenever schools welcome students back, the logistical and pedagogical challenges will be enormous, and simply re-creating the pre-shutdown norm will be neither possible nor desirable. The pandemic has offered educators yet another reminder that the pre-coronavirus status quo didn’t serve every student well, and this tumultuous period might even offer new insights into how to remedy that.
Amid a rushed experiment in distance education, a small fraction of children appear to be doing fine—even better than when they were in school. An elementary-school principal in the Vermont town where my family lives recently used a farm analogy to describe the impact of remote learning on his students: Just as his chickens huddle in their coop on a rainy day, while the ducks, which are made for water, rush to get muddy, so do children differ in their reactions to this unexpected storm.
Children of all ages have suffered from the coronavirus shutdown, and each age group faces distinctive social, emotional, and academic losses. However, the effects of remote learning are the worst for young children, whose brains grow rapidly from in-person relationships and active, hands-on exploration. Their boisterous physical play strengthens not only gross and fine motor skills but also interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, visual-spatial thinking, confidence building, and stamina. Babies and toddlers are still learning to read social-emotional cues and need to see and feel unobstructed faces. The known adverse effects of screen time on the developing brain are clearly more damaging to young children, whose emerging language and literacy skills depend on plentiful, meaningful conversations with teachers whose mouths are unobstructed by masks.
Even if a vaccine were to unexpectedly become available at “warp speed,” as the White House has promised, it could be three or four years before the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren can be vaccinated safely on a wide scale. Treating young children like radioactive specimens until then is untenable, and adults will have to come up with other accommodations (such as testing protocols or the formation of smaller cohorts) to make possible the physical mingling and comforting hugs that are crucial elements in child-care centers and early-elementary-school classrooms.
Read: What teachers need to make remote schooling work
The 7 million children receiving special education should also receive high priority for returning to in-person education, because caregivers without training or support simply cannot deliver specialized services, including those for physically disabled students. Children who are already struggling with their academic program are likely to lose more ground than other students when they cannot go to school.
As schools reopen, they will have to improvise in countless ways. Because maintaining physical distance among elementary-school students is particularly difficult, not all families will be equally comfortable in mid-August with the idea of sending their children back to school, and some families will have both the capacity and desire to care for their children at home during the day for at least part of the school week. Schools can help by offering parents of returning students some flexibility in scheduling. At a time when reducing physical density is in everyone’s interest, states should consider modifying truancy laws designed in the pre-pandemic era. This would require a shift in thinking about the primacy of school as a locus of learning; even in ordinary times, so much learning happens outside the classroom. Public schools have historically struggled with hybrid school models such as part-time homeschooling, but a willingness to make adjustments for children in the younger grades would benefit everyone during a pandemic.