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September 25, 2020

The silence of the virtual classroom: Remote learning makes social skills development more challenging

Opinion Children's Health
COVID-19 Virtual Learning - One time use Emily Rubin/For PhillyVoice

Some 55 million U.S. students started the 2020-21 school year remotely, including the author's twin boys.

It is the first day of school. There are no buses. No sounds of the bell ringing or morning announcements over the loudspeaker. There is no chatter, laughter, high fives or even elbow bumps between the students in the classrooms. Hallways and lockers are empty. The cafeteria floor is sparkling clean.

This first day of school is different. It is too silent – no feelings of nostalgia and excitement. Meeting new students, new teachers, new friends, new experiences and new opportunities is just a distant memory.

55 million students in the United States were out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These students missed face-to-face instruction that continued into the summer months. Some students are now returning to school in person, but many, like my twin boys, are continuing remote learning, while others have a hybrid situation.

The remote learning has many teachers working 24/7 to create high-quality educational content for the online platform. Parents, like myself, are juggling a job while home-schooling their children. Students are faced with isolation, fear, anxiety – and uncertainty about their educational future. I feel there is no separation between home, school and work.

As a health care provider, graduate student, and mother to twins, my concern with virtual education is how it will fulfill academic expectations with social interaction for all students.

My twins find it difficult to learn from a video. "I hate Zoom" –a kindergartener told me when I asked about her day. I then spoke to a high school senior who said, "This is my last year –I want to go back to school with my friends. I learn much more in the classroom than these videos." 

It is ironic – because all I see today is kids, including mine, watching and learning from some YouTube or TikTok video, yet virtual school has become a challenge. Researchers at the University of Peking have said that "online sessions between 15 to 30 minutes are most effective.”

Longing to find a solution, I interviewed students, parents and teachers from Bucks County. One kindergarten teacher stressed that so much of the learning process is defined by human interaction. 

"Kids learn, grow and motivate one another," she said. "Without the classroom environment, there is very little opportunity for hands-on learning experiences, teachable ‘in the moment’ and valuable life lessons."

Another teacher expressed, "The hardest part was learning all the different engaging websites and programs to keeps the kids involved and meeting the needs of all the types of new learners. The teachers have become students." Teachers also have to be technology savvy to succeed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in-person school setting plays a critical role as a support system, offering a stable and secure environment for developing social skills and peer relationships. 

We need social interaction at school for the development of language, communication, social, emotional and interpersonal skills. How can virtual learning provide the same mental health and social services, speech-language therapy, and physical or occupational therapy as in-person school? These are the vital services that help the physical, psychological and academic well-being of the child.

"Virtual learning makes it difficult for children to have the true, authentic learning experience," a special education teacher told me. "Being engaged at the computer for various times a day makes it tiresome not only for students but parents as well.”

How do we then meet the needs of low-income, minority students and students with disabilities to succeed in this virtual school environment? Many low-income families have limited or no computer and internet access. A study by researchers at Brown and Harvard universities showed that the math scores of 800,000 students decreased by 50% after schools closed in March.

A parent expressed, "I feel it is a setback for my daughter who has an Individualized Education Program; she is not getting the same support as she would get in the classroom." 

The CDC states that remote learning makes absorbing information more difficult for students with disabilities, developmental delays, English as a second language, or other cognitive disabilities.

"Online learning is hard for all kids, but even harder for ESL students," an ESL teacher stressed. "Outreach to families is a priority. We work with families to make this learning as accessible and understandable as possible."

Can the virtual classroom be successful? It is too soon to tell. But the virtual classroom is silent compared to in-person school. I do believe that children and teachers belong in the classroom in some form or another. 

This academic structure provides a support system that is irreplaceable. If virtual learning is the new normal for school, there has to be a solution that allows for more interaction between school services and the student. These students are our future.

Emily Rubin, R.D., has been a registered dietitian with Thomas Jefferson’s division of gastroenterology and hepatology for 18 years. She is the dietitian for their celiac center, Fatty Liver Center and Weight Management Center. She is also the public relations chair for the Philadelphia Dietetic Association. She typically writes on topics related to nutrition and dieting.

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