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As the unprecedented 2020-2021 school year comes to an end, many are now wondering what comes next. While MCPS is planning to fully return to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, they are also offering another option: Montgomery Virtual, a new, full time virtual learning program offered to all K-12 students in MCPS. With these new developments, students will have to choose between returning to the familiar model of in-person learning or continuing with the safer option of online learning.
While virtual learning is slowing the spread of COVID-19 cases in schools, it could be doing more harm than good. Online learning is taking a toll on students’ mental health and is exacerbating existing inequalities, which is why the county’s decision to reopen schools is coming as a huge relief to many students and their families.
First and foremost, online school is negatively affecting students’ physical and mental health and well-being. According to a February 12, 2020 article by the education consulting firm EAB, 75% of students receiving mental health care did so in a school setting. Now that they are at home and without the support of friends and teachers, a large portion of students will have nowhere to turn to when it comes to mental health support. This could dramatically worsen problems such as depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses.
In addition, being at home could increase the number of cases of child abuse. A May 17, 2020 article by the Social Science Research Network estimated that over 200,000 cases of child abuse went unreported in just the spring of 2020, with teachers not able to report students at risk.
Virtual learning also makes it harder for low income students to learn and access resources that they normally would receive in school. A 2019 analysis by the Associated Press found that 17% of students lack a computer at home and 18% have no internet access. Without these resources it would be extremely difficult for students to participate in class and get the same quality of education that they would receive in a school building. This will only increase the education gap, which will inevitably result in racial and social disparities later in life as well.
But the effects of online school don’t just stop at the students. In a normal school year, students go to school for six hours each day, leaving parents with time to focus on their job and other responsibilities. But now that students are at home, parents will have to supervise their children while juggling their work. This is especially challenging for single parents, who are already overburdened with having to single-handedly support their household.
Many parents may worry that in-person school could put their kids at risk of contracting COVID-19. But data from the Montgomery County COVID-19 Information Portal shows that as of May 12, 2021, nearly 57% of people in Montgomery County have received one dose of a COVID vaccine, and over 44% of people are fully vaccinated. By the time school starts in the fall of 2021, this number will undoubtedly be much higher. This, along with the recent news that Pfizer has now received emergency use authorization for 12-15 year olds to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, means that most students and teachers will have been partially or fully vaccinated when it becomes time to return to school.
Although schools and teachers have been trying their best to make online instruction work, these past few months have proven that virtual learning is just not the same as in-person school.
Of course, in the earlier months of the pandemic, schools had no choice but to stay closed for the safety of students and staff. But now that it is safe to reopen schools, it is imperative that students return to school as soon as they can. The costs are too great otherwise.