The coronavirus has upended childhood’s predictable routine, unleashing a host of challenges for students and parents alike — from tech glitches to existential woe. With so much learning happening online, we asked education experts to take on big questions about school in the time of COVID-19, from will kids still make friends to whether they’ll become good citizens. This is their advice on the potential pitfalls and silver linings (yes, there are some) we’ll see in the year ahead.
How will my child make friends?
Even everyday parents know that learning on a screen with a fixed cohort of classmates hampers the natural development of friendships. This is especially worrisome for teens, says Richard Lerner, a professor of human development at Tufts University, because their emotional development hinges on the quality of their independent relationships. Teens gain the agency to choose their own friendships, apart from their parents. Remote and socially distant hybrid learning constrain that opportunity for discovery.
“The very thing kids need to flourish in their lives is nurturing, positive relationships with other kids, parents, extended community, teachers, and mentors — rich, nurturing relationships that model and promote positive skills in kids,” Lerner says. Here’s the good news: The technology that puts the “remote” in remote learning can also let kids develop warm and engaging virtual relationships, too — from a gaming date with friends or Zooming with pals from summer camp — and foster stronger connections among kids and parents.
Parents need to encourage that process and support their children in curating deliberate online lives. The most effective way to do so is to act as a partner, or a mentor, helping kids learn to establish agency when forming healthy connections. A parent should also know when to let their teen take the lead — a dual role that’s tough but worthwhile, especially for growing teens — walking the line between boundary-setting and independence.
Lerner also suggests showing your child that you value their opinions, too, by asking them for advice about navigating the virtual world for yourself. Lerner calls this process modeling “collaborative co-curation,” intended to build trust and independence.
How bad is this going to be for equity?
Schools were already facing challenges providing all students with an equitable educational experience. In the pandemic, inequity is widely expected to worsen. In Boston, for example, white families and families of color are making significantly different choices about learning — about 27 percent of white families have opted for their children to attend school entirely remotely, versus 54 percent of Black families, 55 percent of Latinx families, and 58 percent of Asian families. Natasha Kumar Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts, says these trends reflect the on-the-ground reality that people of color, especially Black people, have been hit harder by COVID-19, and are more concerned about exposure, especially since they tend to live in closer quarters. They also have more distrust of educational institutions.
Remote learning means children from lower-income families could fall through the cracks, without the safeguards of school meals or a school nurse. There are ways to address this, she says, but they require investment. “Schools should make sure each child has a reliable device to use for remote schooling, and reliable Internet access — not just a phone hot spot,” she says, adding that schools need good, fast-responding tech teams to support families. And, there should also be “regular, one-on-one check-ins with parents and guardians to understand what is working and what is not working for their children.”
She says school districts must make an extra effort to keep kids from falling behind, including following up quickly with parents and guardians when kids don’t show online, and making time to provide individualized support for kids.
Will all the screen time hurt my child’s emotional development?
For young children in particular, remote learning presents a challenge to their social-emotional development, much of which happens incidentally as they problem solve on the playground and share and listen at circle time. Teachers are worried about this, too: Social/emotional development was the top choice as most difficult thing to teach remotely in a 2020 survey of pre-kindergarten teachers in North Carolina.
“Tech has been such a villain for early childhood teachers,” says Yvonne Liu-Constant, who teaches early childhood education at Lesley University. But, she says, research is showing benefits of tech even for young learners. It’s "not so much about ‘how much screen time’ but ‘what is the technology used for,’ " she says.
Encourage children to be active creators with technology, rather than passive consumers. Using tech actively to solve problems is good; passively watching a video is less desirable. Some ideas: video-record pretend play and make it into a movie; during a nature walk, use a smartphone to take photos of interesting animals, bugs, and plants so you can identify them online later; or connect with friends and cousins by doing a talent show via video conference.
“It’s not about banning tech; it’s about using it creatively and creating social connections,” Liu-Constant says. This is good news for harried parents. Next time your toddler watches a movie, turn it into an activity by asking about the plot or telling a joke about what’s happening on screen.
Will teachers miss signs of problems?
Subtle changes in a child’s mood, tone of voice, or behavior may be signs of trauma, such as exposure to violence or food insecurity. In person, teachers can notice and intervene when they spot these signs. This process is harder with distance learning, says Sal Terrasi, director of the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity, because teachers are physically removed from their students and learning new technology themselves.
Still, he says educators, even remotely, can foster a sense of belonging and connection to mitigate the effects of traumatic stress for kids. “Give them a chance to talk in morning circle, not only listening to the words but to the emotion under the words,” he says. Establishing rituals and routines gives kids a sense of security, safety, and belonging, and also helps teachers pick up on emotional cues.
Administrators and parents also need to extend the same sensitivity to teachers, and promote educator self-care. “We talk about the traumatic stress that children bring to the environment. It [also] becomes stressful for teachers — secondary stress, vicarious trauma,” he says. Even though everyone might be frustrated with remote learning woes, “Assume positive intent,” he says, and treat teachers with compassion.
Will this year disengage kids from their communities?
Civic engagement levels by many measures, including volunteering and institutional trust, have been trending downward. Despite lockdowns, the pandemic might help reverse that — it could be good for society that those of us with kids are spending more time than ever with them, says Sara Johnson, an assistant professor of child study and human development at Tufts. From the pandemic to racial unrest to an upcoming election, it’s an ideal time to show children how to get involved.
Remote learning can also offer teaching moments that don’t happen in a classroom. For instance, a child might now be home to accompany a parent to vote, or a parent could use remote learning as an example of people protecting one another’s space and safety.
“I hope that schools and parents use this [time] to start these discussions,” Johnson says. “Everyone wants normal, and normal is good, but kids pay attention to what is going on in the world,” even if they don’t bring it up at home or school.
Will my child lose language skills?
Before the pandemic, “the average American parent spent 10 minutes per day interacting with their child over things that were not directives,” says Calvin “Chip” Gidney, an associate professor of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts. In other words, we spent a lot of time telling our kids what to do. When kids are learning from home, there’s more time for substantive discussion.
Increased opportunities to hear and engage with adults in everyday conversation is a good thing, he says. “Have meals together, have dinner, turn off all devices, and actually just have conversations. Find time to have linguistic interaction.”
Gidney also encourages parents to find ways to help their children replicate easygoing, natural in-person conversation remotely. Kids could be up against an “interaction deficit,” he warns, so it’s important to offer them a schedule where they have some autonomy over their social life, such as a regular Zoom call.
He encourages parents to use platforms that mimic in-person conversations, such as Zoom or Skype, and to resist relying on social media for connections, which discourages face-to-face interaction. One hypothetical benefit of remote learning is that kids will be less apt from afar to compare superficial things, such as clothes. “This might help [kids] develop a [better] sense of self,” Gidney says.
It is true that nothing beats live interactions, he adds, so it could be helpful to form safe social pods.
Will my kids learn anything?
They already are. For starters, kids are learning how to deploy and share technology in new ways, from making videos to Zooming with distant relatives. While some school districts have tried to replicate classroom environments, “other schools are becoming innovative, creative, and doing things together in a virtual space that you couldn’t do before,” says Marina Bers, a professor of child study and human development at Tufts. Some schools have re-thought the traditional block schedule and the role of social interaction by having longer breaks. More importantly, some are engaging in interdisciplinary projects and team teaching that cut across different areas of study.
“Before, you were stuck in a physical space,” Bers says. “Now, this is an opportunity to work across ages, disciplines, and countries.”
Parents also have the opportunity to think about teaching separate from tech. This is especially important for younger children whose lives are less tethered to on-screen learning. Bers encourages parents to adopt an “apprenticeship model,” where kids learn life skills such as cooking alongside a parent. “Do not worry that kids are going to fall behind academically,” she says. “What you teach them in terms of life skills is a lot more important. This is a chance to be a role model. Don’t hide it. Involve them in problem-solving in all domains.”
Kara Baskin writes regularly for the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.