How Will Extended School Closures Affect Your Kids' Education?

Sabrina Rojas Weiss

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As of this writing, 43 states and the District of Columbia have either ordered or recommended that their schools remain closed for the rest of the school year. Officials in Maryland, Washington, and Pennsylvania have suggested they’re preparing to stay closed in the fall, too, if necessary. By now, we have a pretty good idea of what this means for parents. It’s less clear what the impact will be on our children.

Even educational experts don’t know how to answer this — this kind of nationwide school closure is literally unprecedented — so it’s a daunting issue to tackle in one piece. So we’re going to give you a few perspectives on the academic and emotional consequences of students being out of school for five or more months.

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“As we crawl back to normal, the kids are all going to be in the same place: They will all miss school; they’ll all miss birthdays; they will have all missed their sports teams, their clubs, Brownies, Cub Scouts, all those things that they were doing,” Ron Stolberg, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Alliant International University told SheKnows. “So there’s some confidence or comfort in knowing that everyone else is experiencing the same thing.”

That may be so when we look at all children as a whole. We also know there are a lot of kids whose lack of access to digital devices and high-speed internet means they’re getting left behind the others. School districts are putting forth a valiant effort to put devices into children’s hands and internet in their homes, often with the help of corporate donations. In the meantime, some schools are reporting that fewer than 25 percent of their students are logging into their online classrooms. With no instruction at all, the students who aren’t accessing online learning (75% or more) will most definitely be starting their next year behind the others. Experts do know from past limited closures in certain regions (like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina) that missing school entirely does lead to lower scores, lower graduation rates, and even lower income as adults.

Meanwhile, this still has a huge impact on the kids who do have access and very involved parents wanting to homeschool them. Here are three scenarios, ranging from the most dire cases of special-needs kids to the best-case outcome of the students who are getting truly 21st century educations amid this crisis.

virtual school computer book
virtual school computer book

The special-needs students: Not moving forward, hopefully not regressing

Ideally, children with learning differences who already have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are getting help from their teachers and therapists via video chat, and it’s a reasonable substitute.

“I have a client with dyslexia who gets tutoring, and that’s translatable [to online learning] because you can do on-screen exercises,” Aeri Pang, a managing attorney at the Law Office of Elisa Hyman, told SheKnows.

Pang represents low- and middle-income families who have to sue the New York City Department of Education to get the services that an IEP can’t provide. Many of her clients’ kids have autism and are nonverbal or have other disabilities that require one-on-one physical therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral therapy, and more. These are the kids for whom screens are a very poor substitute.

“Some kids have sensory issues, and some of them don’t want to look at the screen,” Pang explained. “The whole point of the therapy is to have someone with you, one-to-one, sometimes doing hand-over-hand guidance.”

In those situations, it becomes incumbent on the caregiver at home to guide their child’s exercises, with remote instruction from the therapist, all while making sure their kid doesn’t try to run away from the screen. Without the continuation of dedicated help, Pang says these kids are at risk of regressing.

That’s a fear New York mom Susan Cohen is facing for her 8-year-old son, Elliot, who has a condition called tuberous sclerosis complex that causes benign tumors to grow in his brain and elsewhere. Though he has video sessions with his multiple therapists all day, the schedule constantly changes, and his day is complicated by the fact that his mother also has to care for his little brother.

“Routine is much more important to a kid with special needs because everything is dependent upon knowing what happens and what’s next,” she told us. “[Without school] he’s very disregulated. He walks around, he bangs the walls. He went through a period of disrobing because he didn’t know what else to do with himself. We end up literally walking around with him, feeding him his food and his medicine.”

Students like Elliot often have school 12 months a year, so he’s missing out on more than just a few months.

“I’m not assuming that we’re going to be back by summer,” Cohen said. “The idea of Elliot doing this for four more months is somewhat devastating because, notwithstanding all the remote learning plans and the tele-therapy, he’s not moving forward. He’s not going to make forward progress in this time. My only hope is that he does not regress in a way that makes it insurmountable to get to where he was.”

School picture day hacks
School picture day hacks

The psychologist: We’ll get through this

Of course, the outlook is much better for kids on the mainstream track. Other than their core academics, Stolberg says there are two other core benefits kids get from school: structure from their teachers and socialization with their peers. The good news is that parents can provide both, even while maintaining social distancing.

“Classroom management is a skill that parents never got taught,” said Stolberg, who cowrote the book Teaching Kids to Think. “Children really respond to knowing [limits], and the structure and the schedule at school. … Not having structure creates a sense of anxiety in kids.”

OK, so get out the poster board, finally, and make a schedule.

As for the second part, it’s time to forget everything you’ve read about screen time, for now anyway.

“We’re in a period of crisis right now, and those [screen] rules need to be changed,” he said. “These kids actually really need to be engaged with other kids online.”

This means that just as you used to set up playdates with your toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school kids, you’re going to have to set up a lot of video chats. Like, as many as they want. Stolberg has seen this alleviate depression in his young patients.

“There’s a lot of support for the idea that a friend is a friend, and it doesn’t matter if you engage with that friend in person or through a video game or a video chat,” he said. “People need to feel that they have friends. They need to feel that they’re included, that they have a group, that they’re connected to people.”

custody college financial aid
custody college financial aid

The tech teachers: We’ve got this

Some students are going to come out of this ahead of the others. There are, of course, the kids in fancy private schools that provide hours of live video instruction a day, which they can access on their own computers in their own quiet bedrooms through flawless connections. Their school experience is closer to the futuristic, space-age video schools we thought online learning would be.

There are also some public schools that were as close to prepared for this day as seems possible. That is, their teachers had been integrating digital learning elements into their classrooms before the pandemic, so they had the necessary training and technology at their fingertips.

In the case of the 40 New York City public schools partnered with the Teachers College Center for Technology and School Change, they were at least in the process of doing so. Now, those schools have the Center’s experts at the ready to help them use those tools for their entire curriculum. This means they’re not just sending out a bunch of links to apps and worksheets; they’re creating big-picture projects.

“We’re trying to take the work that we were doing with these schools, which involved helping them develop student-centered and authentic projects, and showing them how to implement the projects online,” Ellen Meier, professor of computing and educational practice at Teachers College and the director of CTSC, told SheKnows. “It’s been something that [the teachers] can do because they’re more comfortable with the technology, and they’ve been thinking about how to do this kind of interactive work with students as they plan the projects.”

Karen Kirsch Page, CTSC’s assistant director for professional development, described for us how a group of second grade teachers are having their students design a playground (sigh, remember those?). This project is aligned with Common Core standards and uses math, engineering, English language skills, and social studies. Now, Kirsch Page is helping the teachers explore different ways to have the students either build a model in the real world with recycled materials or design it using software on their devices.

“If they’re building something, they may be taking a photo and bringing that into a Google Slides deck,” she explained. “If they’re designing it in a Minecraft space, they might be making sure they know how to take a screenshot and bringing that into an app that’s maybe a book-making platform to showcase their work.”

While Kirsch Page likes to describe this digital teaching style as “building out the walls of the classroom,” she does acknowledge that teachers are still figuring out how to replace the feedback from students that they used to get from nonverbal clues, telling them when the kids loved or hated an assignment, and whether they understood what the teacher is saying. Now, they may have to use group videos, emojis, chats, and a lot of questions to check in with their students along the way.

“I think that they’re discovering some really interesting applications,” Meier said. “I think they will be able to take a good deal of what they have developed during this very sad time and into their work going forward.”

Stolberg also thinks this integration of technology and education will be one of the positive outcomes of social distancing. Kids are becoming more confident in their computer skills, which is in turn boosting their self-esteem. That’s just a part of what children can be gaining at this time.

“These kids at home now are learning to be a little more autonomous, a little more independent,” Stolberg said. “They are feeding themselves more. They are entertaining themselves more. They’re getting good at the electronics.”

Hey, if this keeps going past the fall, we’re going to start having to pay our kids as in-home IT consultants.

Attention, newly minted homeschool teachers: Here are some of our favorite apps for teaching kids how to read.

Launch Gallery: How to Help Your Kids Learn to Read (& Love It) at Home

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