Schools are slowly starting to reopen in the US after a year of online learning for the majority of the nation's 56 million K-12 students. Closed schools have had a devastating impact on many kids due to social isolation and the stress thatlockdowns have had on many families.
Educators are starting to examine the lasting impact the pandemic is going to have on kids and how to get them back on track in school. As part of CNET's Now What series, I spoke with Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that promotes best practices in education.
We talked about the positive and negative impacts that the pandemic has had on students. But first, we had to put the mental health issues front and center.
"We surveyed 11,000 high school students during the pandemic and at least 30% of them said that mental health was one of their very top concerns," said Pope. "Typically, we see homework as a top concern, or grades."
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have reported a 30% jump in the number of adolescents' visits to emergency rooms in 2020 to treat mental health-related symptoms. And the American Journal of Pediatrics published a study in December, showing a 25% jump in ER visits for young adults to treat suicidal behavior. The New York Times has reported on the teen mental health crisis as well.
While Pope stresses that "there are far more negatives" overall for students from the past year, she also highlighted that there have been positives for kids. Some kids simply like learning from home better because they can concentrate easier, use their time more efficiently or don't have to worry about bullying and social pressures as much. Older kids can fit schooling around their work schedules much easier. Kids with attention deficit disorder have the advantage of fewer distractions when schooling from home.
Some teachers have seen the benefits as well.
Pope said, "We now have teachers, who instead of grading papers and writing feedback and handing the paper back to a kid, they're making a little video about it, which is really personal and can say a lot more. And honestly, it's a little more efficient [for the teacher]."
That's an example of something that could continue after the pandemic. Teachers have also accelerated their use of other technologies like Zoom for video conferencing, Google Docs for collaborative learning and Kahoot for turning online quizzes into games.
Still, over 4 million households don't have consistent access to online learning, according to the US Census Bureau. School districts have done a lot to try to fill the gap, but we know a lot of kids still got missed.
"I have to give schools credit for Herculean efforts to try to get kids connected," said Pope. "We have lots and lots of districts that have purchased Chromebooks and laptops. They have worked to get internet access. They're putting school buses with Wi-Fi in the middle of neighborhoods.
"And yet we know so many kids are not able to connect … Some kids have not been able to connect at all and teachers have been searching for them, been making phone calls, sending letters. That's a population that we're very worried about. We need them to come back to school and we need to deal with all the learning they missed."
Those efforts will include summer programs and tutoring. There are proposals to train a lot more tutors since many will be needed to help the kids who have fallen behind when they go back to the classroom this fall.
There are also the kids who will choose not to go back.
Pope said, "We are predicting an explosion of more online schools, because there are so many kids who have found [online learning] to be better, or who like it better."
She also noted that there will also be parents who want to continue to keep kids learning from home since the vaccine for kids won't be ready by the fall.
It's clear that the pandemic will continue to change and evolve a lot of things for both teachers and students. Some will be for the better, others will be more challenging. Pope highlighted one that might be the least popular among students.
"People are talking about snow days going away, because now we have the capability to put kids online," she said.
Watch the full interview for more insights on where education goes from here and how to help students navigate it.