Allen Selis
Education is the launchpad for social change

Don’t Distance Me

Learning online is a lonely ordeal. That's why getting back to school is essential.

Our children’s mental health and academic performance suffer when they are away from school. Bring them back now.

After the first day of distance learning, the Facebook page of the Yishuv where I do most of my teaching was in a storm. Many parents do not want their kids back in school. “It’s not safe yet.” “What about the cleaning staff?” “It’s too soon.”

On the other side of the Facebook storm stood parents who wanted schools to reopen yesterday. “I’m an essential worker and my husband was drafted.” “My kids are going crazy at home.” “We can’t go on like this!”

And so on. While my neighbors all have valid points, here’s what ought to be in the forefront of our decision making…and why schools need to reopen immediately and as broadly as possible.

Here is why:
* Remote instruction is substandard academically.
* Remote instruction is bad for students’ mental health.
* Remote instruction stunts children’s social skills.

Let’s start with academics. A May, 2023 Harvard study of post-Covid academic performance across 8,000 American communities noted dramatic losses in academic performance. The hardest hit communities lost 1.5 years of learning attainment, meaning that almost nothing of value was learned during two years of Zoom instruction.

What’s behind that data? Some kids lacked access to computers, others could not focus on learning in homes packed with siblings. Then there are the very limits of onscreen learning. It’s hard to focus for long stretches when digital distractions abound. And screens are what I call a “flat” learning space, with limited options for deploying best educational practices like movement, hands-on-projects or other multiple-intelligence learning strategies. Simply put, Zoom is a great place to meet, a decent place to learn something specific, but a horrible place to build a classroom learning community.

Then there is mental health. A different Harvard study on early childhood development published in January of 2022 reported a noted increase in temper tantrums and anxiety among younger elementary school children who participated in distance learning. Additional studies of middle and high school aged students revealed more serious problems. These included depression, a feeling of social disconnection and increased rates of suicidal behavior among students who learned remotely as opposed to in person.

As for social skills, the overwhelming anecdotal consensus among my colleagues is that the kids who were isolated during Covid are behaving years below their age. This impacts problem solving and negotiating relationships. The loss is seen in a spike in disciplinary issues, anger, violence and acting out to name a few.

As an Israeli, I worry most about these social skills. We are very much a collective, communitarian society. That’s actually the brilliance of Israel. Whether it’s a shichvah in school, a shevet in B’nai Akivah, tzofim or the like, the strong bonds of community are one of our greatest assets as a society. These are precisely the tools we need to survive adversity…like the war we’re experiencing now. Every day we see the benefits of community, connectedness and volunteerism. You just can’t learn those things by sitting across from a computer screen.

In response to the raging Facebook debate, I weigh in with a firm “Yes, get kids back to school now” for communities that are not adjacent to active combat. Even two hours a day of human connection and hands-on academic work is better than a full day of Zoom classroom.

We all hope that this chapter of our children’s lives will close quickly. And we all want to protect them. But the best thing we can do for our kids for the long run is to help them become more connected, more self aware, and more resiliant.

That only happens when school meets face to face.

About the Author
Dr. Allen Selis is the founder of the educational technology startup STEM Crafters. Allen is passionate about great teaching, skeptical about "Startup Nation" hype, and invests personal time and energy in children's learning on a daily basis.