Amid another nationwide COVID-19 spike, schools are closing again coast to coast, and one thing is certain: It’s wreaking havoc on a generation.
Earlier this month, our governor here in Michigan directed high-school students to go 100 percent online; likewise, hundreds of thousands of K–12 students nationwide return to homebound, remote learning even though in-person connection is the linchpin for academic success, according to many teachers.
As a mom of five children, I’m acutely aware that this decision increases the burden our youngest generation is bearing to control a virus that rarely makes them sick. Furthermore, experts say children are not driving transmission of COVID-19, especially in school settings. I wonder whether Generation Z — the 56 million school-age Americans who have been dealt disorder and whiplash since March — might someday be called by another name, “the COVID kids,’ since it seems more and more likely that this pandemic is going to irreversibly define them.
“The outbreak challenges the resilience of vulnerable children as it increases in children’s environments the number of already existing risks . . . and reduces the number of protective forces,” states a report published in August by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “The pandemic and the associated policy responses of confinement and social distancing touch on almost every part of children’s worlds.”
Right now, kids are more vulnerable to education loss, increased risk of family violence, loneliness, derailed trajectories including higher drop-out rates, depression, suicide, and increased attacks by online sexual predators.
The spring should have been the canary in the mine, exposing the sudden crippling of all in-person K–12 education as too dangerous to ever repeat. Just the educational losses alone — 15,000 students completely AWOL in Los Angeles, millions without high-speed Internet access at home, and those doing school online losing between three months and one year of learning — are unacceptable.
And yet in August, adults in power ignored the strong recommendation of the American Association of Pediatrics and the CDC, and 74 percent of the 100 largest school districts returned to school online. Now it’s November, and schools that had worked so hard to deliver protocol-laden in-person learning are shutting their doors again, including ones in Connecticut and Iowa.
High-school science teacher Alexis Zieler in Michigan told me that virtual high school is “a disaster” that is working well only for very few students. Of her 35 students in virtual biology class, 30 are struggling, she said. The accountability and motivation she provides in spades inside her classroom are gone. So too is her arsenal of creative teaching methods.
“There are no varied learning styles in virtual at all,” Zieler says. “My student who is tied for valedictorian, she’s really bright, and a hard worker. She gets nothing from those videos. It’s only working for students whose learning style is in sort of a Goldilocks sweet spot.”
Jackie Hall, a mom of four in California’s Bay Area, told me that virtual school for her eleven-year-old son who has an IEP for dyslexia made him feel like a failure, and online teachers offered no extra attention or help.
“By the end of the day, he was a disaster,” Hall says. “His attitude toward everything was bad — it was heartbreaking. And each day he was just falling farther and farther behind.”
After two weeks of virtual schooling this fall, she pulled him out and is now homeschooling him — “something I never thought I could or would do,” she says.
In Northern Virginia, mom of four boys Veronika Cowen told me that virtual elementary school is “horrible,” especially for her kindergartener, who “refuses to do any work virtually.” Further, Cowen’s own goals as a parent have derailed.
“My biggest accomplishment as a modern-day parent was that I managed to keep my boys not addicted to screen . . . till now,” she says. “Now I am supposed to keep them staring at screens all day long.”
These are common woes of the dozens of parents I’ve talked with who feel frustrated, stuck, and angry. But they’re also problems on the surface; the underbelly of homebound, virtual learning and isolation is much uglier.
Experts are calling the pandemic a perfect storm for abusers and pedophiles, whose access to children in 2020 is unprecedented. Last month the FBI and Department of Justice issued a joint warning asking parents to wake up to predators’ “increased access to children,” stating, “Parents don’t know all the apps or how to use them, but sexual predators do. They know where the kids are and how to reach them.” Law enforcement is reporting record levels of online child sexual crimes worldwide, including in Scotland and Louisiana. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says a good rule of thumb for school-age kids is “the expectation . . . that they are only connected with people they know in real life.”
But family violence can get all too real for virtual learners isolated at home. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, COVID-related stress “may stimulate violence in families where it didn’t exist before” and make adults more prone to abuse children, an issue compounded by lost resources and safety nets for parents since March. “In some families, COVID‑19 creates a ‘pressure cooker’ situation, in which family stress may reach toxic levels,” states the August OECD report. It’s estimated that one-fifth of abuse cases are noticed by teachers at schools, now nowhere near the kids they’ve long tried to protect.
As Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University wrote in November’s Imprimis:
In effect, what we’ve been doing is requiring young people to bear the burden of controlling a disease from which they face little to no risk. This is entirely backward from the right approach. . . . Current lockdown policies [are] . . . leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice. Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.
And here I am feeling disproportionately blessed. In the game of pandemic life, my family drew the ticket of in-person schooling. As I write, my fifth-grader, third-grader, and first-grader are in school, wearing their masks in real classrooms with teachers, chalkboards, and friends. No screens. But we are certainly in the fortunate minority.
What will happen in years to come when the COVID kids take stock of the unfair sacrifices they were forced to make in 2020? My guess is that they will be a generation filled with deep-seated resentment. And I fear for all the ways that will manifest itself. One risk seems especially high: that once the COVID kids are the adults in charge, their compassion for their elders — the Boomers and Millennials closing their schools right now — might be woefully lacking.