2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Screen time is a poor substitute for the classroom education that children need

Virtual learning is not fair or equal, and creates great stress in the household

I’ve hesitated to share my opinion publicly until now because of political divisions in our country that I sincerely do not want to exacerbate or fuel. And I’ve been afraid of being seen as anti-educator, and I’m the opposite of that.

But from my perspective — as a former public school teacher and a parent of a first-grader — it’s time to reopen schools to the fullest extent we can. As we approach an entire year of virtual learning, we need to work together and turn the page for the sake of our kids.

Teachers provide an essential public service — educating our children, the future of our society.

With appropriate mitigation efforts recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we can keep teachers and students safe in schools. Other countries have opened schools and much data have shown that there is no major impact on COVID-19 spread.

An NPR article explains that there is not a consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus.

A recent comprehensive report by Insights for Education found that the number of disrupted school days and COVID-19 deaths are not correlated. There are now countless other resources confirming the same information. MCPS needs to follow the science and reopen.

In Montgomery County, we can dine indoors, take in-person classes, swim in county pools, go shopping at stores, work out at the gym, fly on airplanes, get manicures and massages, and much more.

However, our children can’t go to school. This has been the case throughout most of the pandemic, but it doesn’t take away from the ideological ridiculousness of it. Where exactly are our values as a society? 

The inequality of it all is maddening. While virtual learning works for some students who seem to be doing well, it is devastating for many kids and families, despite our teachers’ and school system’s best efforts.

We have a wealthy county. Many parents in Montgomery County have the choice to opt out of virtual learning and send their children to private schools or hire private pod teachers.

However, those of us who do not have the means to make that choice are left with miserable, restless kids stuck on screens all day. Less income means no in-person instruction.

Virtual learning is not fair or equal for students, especially younger learners and those with disabilities. It’s a double stake through the heart for many parents who have either had to quit their jobs or reduce their hours to support this inferior method of learning.

It’s been a year of tremendous stress for people who have had to balance full-time work with remote learning support at home, only to see their kids fall behind academically and suffer emotionally.

Screens are not a long-term solution. Until this pandemic, our pediatricians told us that we should limit screen time to an hour or so a day, for our children’s health.

For almost a year now, students have been sitting for long stretches of time, being motivated, taught and disciplined through screens.

The American Society of Pediatrics “continues to strongly advocate that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” UNICEF and other global organizations have also expressed deep concerns for the learning loss and other challenges students are facing.

I’ve witnessed how MCPS teachers have risen to the occasion and used technology to the best of their abilities, showing incredible patience and perseverance in a difficult situation.

And yet, this method cannot replace the organic sense of joy that our kids feel when they are in a building with their friends. Right now, that joy is missing for so many and has been for far too long. 

Teachers are essential. It’s time to provide the essential instruction that our children need and deserve.

On Feb. 9, MCPS committed to reopening via a hybrid model, with all students heading back into the classroom throughout the months of March and April.

MCPS is finally acquiescing to the national and international movement to reopen schools. While hybrid is not enough, it’s definitely a start.

However, we can’t ignore the sentence at the bottom of the community update that states “because we are unable to predict the path of the pandemic, should the present downward trend in cases change, MCPS may need to revisit the approved timeline to keep the well-being of our students and staff at the forefront of our planning.”

This gives MCPS an out — another opportunity to place a roadblock in front of reopening schools at its discretion.

After a year of learning loss, we can’t let this virus keep our children from where they belong: in school with their teachers and peers. COVID-19 is not going anywhere and we must learn to live with the risk it brings.

With a growing number of variants spreading and a slower than expected vaccine roll-out, it’s evident that the vaccine will be a tool in our arsenal of mitigation tactics, but it won’t be a cure-all. COVID-19 will be here for years — maybe forever — and we need to adjust.

I celebrate teachers. My sister, my mom and my brother are all educators. I felt then as I do now, that our society relies upon teachers’ commitment to our children. They are integral to creating culture and cultivating intelligent humans who will run our world someday.

Entering a classroom is not entirely without risk, but isn’t there a “greater good” argument to at least consider? Our children need teachers now more than ever.

We can’t replace education with fear.

We have to give all of our children the education they deserve, because any hope for a better world is tied to their success. 

Ilana Guttin, who lives in Rockville, is the mom of a current MCPS first-grader and a future MCPS student.

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