Even When Virtual Learning Goes Well, Kids Miss Out

High school sophomore Piper Cherry at home on the first day of virtual learning. She says she misses the social aspects of school. Photo: Courtesy M. Westman-Cherry.

Most District students have been learning virtually since the spring. There have been challenges in ensuring that all students have a device, a connection to the internet and that they all show up to classes. Students, parents and educators alike are trying to make the best of a bad situation. But even when virtual learning goes right, there are things that kids miss when learning online.

Kids in their middle school and high school years are missing critical formative experiences. Even those part of a generation raised on screens and social media say they feel lonely and unsure how to communicate with peers in this new reality. Many say they feel anxious and uncertain about the future, both in the world and in their own lives.

What are some things kids are missing out on in online learning, and how can parents and schools help?

‘OK, the World is Ending’
The COVID-19 crisis has hit a generation of teenagers already disproportionately impacted by depression and anxiety. In 2018, 70 percent of teen respondents told the Pew Research Center that anxiety and depression were a major problem among their peers.

Those impacts are being augmented by the health crisis. In June, nearly 30 percent of parents told a Gallup poll that their child’s emotional or mental health was impacted by COVID measures. 45 percent cited the separation from classmates and teachers as a major challenge of remote learning.

“With this, piled on top of everything else that’s going on, I think a lot of teenagers are saying, ‘What do I have to look forward to?’” said Psychotherapist Laelia Gilborn, who has worked with children and adults on Capitol Hill for nearly a decade.

Many no longer believe they are going to have a normal adolescence, high school or college experience, she added. “That’s a big loss,” she said. “They’re getting more anxious and even fatalistic—because it’s a scary time.”

There are ways parents can help just by talking to their kids. Gilborn suggests putting the pandemic into context to help teenagers see that history evolves on waves. “While some times are harder than others, those times are followed by upswings thanks in part to people who continue to stay engaged and positive,” she said.

Parents can also help their kids be those people. If the political climate is affecting your teenager, helping them find ways to fight for change and to be politically active, for instance by volunteering at voting centers. It can be uplifting for students to feel they are part of the solution, she suggests.

Families also need to think about the activities they do together, and how they are contributing to their collective mental and emotional health. A parent to two teenagers herself, Gilborn said that her family switched from watching political and social justice documentaries early in the pandemic to comedies. She has encouraged her family to focus on good news, such as the development of the COVID -19 vaccine, or look for sites like Good News Network.

“On the surface, a lot of families have adapted in a way that things [helps] feel normal right now. But I think we’re paying a bigger price under the surface than it appears is there,” said Gilborn. “This is a defining experience for most of these kids’ lives.”

Just being with peers is critical for the mental health of teens, as socialization is key to helping teenagers establish independence from parents as well as forming separate personal identities.

Piper Cherry is a sophomore at a small District private school that made the transition to online learning. She says that lately she has started to feel very lonely, missing the kinds of social interactions that just happened organically at school.

When school was in-person, she said, she and her friends would hang out spontaneously —but that isn’t happening anymore. “You know, if school was still in session I might go to this little sandwich place after school with some of my friends, or walk to the metro with them,” Cherry said. “And now, I’m not getting that.”

Gilborn said that if it can be done safely, teenagers and parents should select a friend or two they can see in some way outdoors, their go-to people that they can hang out with separately from their parents, perhaps in a backyard or a park.

“Having independent lives and privacy are key for them. We need to find ways to help them do that,” she said.

Adults can also help facilitate social interaction. Siri Fiske is the Founder of District-based micro school Mysa School, which serves kids from grades K to 12. She said that some of the isolation teenagers are feeling pre-existed the pandemic, aggravated by the fact that many primarily interact through representations on social media.

As a result, many teenagers don’t really know how to initiate casual interaction, she said. “What they’re missing is those passing interactions,” she said.

Fiske suggests that, where possible, schools set up a virtual hangout space. Mysa has a sort of virtual study hall, where kids can check in to ask a question and see who else is there so they can strike up a conversation. Teachers —and even parents —in other schools could set up a virtual lunchroom to do the same thing. “Things like that are not heavy lifting for schools [and] just allow that sort of social interaction that’s not really planned,” said Fiske.

Middle school student Diego Aguillen sits at his desk at home. Photo: Courtesy Maria Hernandez

The teenage years are a time when kids start to develop independence from their parents, a process facilitated by increasing distance from family and dependence on their peer group —both jeopardized by the pandemic.

Maria Hernandez, a federal employee, and her husband, a lobbyist, work full-time from home. Hernandez said that the biggest challenge during virtual learning has been helping their son Diego assert his independence and take responsibility for his own schoolwork.

Diego just started middle school at Friends Community School (5901 Westchester Park Dr., MD), after finishing last year at a DCPS elementary. In elementary school, he was bullied to the point that his mother said it was a good transition to go to virtual learning in the spring.

In the spring, Hernandez said Diego would sleep until 10 a.m. because he knew he didn’t have to be online until 11 a.m. Online learning only lasted an hour, and after that, he had no idea what to do for the rest of the day.

This year is a better experience, she said. Classes are on a fixed schedule, with expectations outlined for Diego at the beginning of the week. However, despite the clear expectations for the day and the year, Hernandez says virtual learning has created roadblocks to building Diego’s independence.

“He knows we’re here, so he’ll come running down if there’s a problem. If he was in a classroom, he’d have to do it on his own,” she said.

She also sees how being in a peer group would assist Diego in that growth. “He’s building less independence than he would on his own in the classroom. In class, there’d be peer pressure. I’m sure he’d be more embarrassed to ask for help before trying.”

Still, despite these challenges, Hernandez syas things are going better. “He’s excited about being online, being in school and learning what’s going to happen.”

“In Terms of School, Just Relax”
Fiske said many parents are becoming concerned about their child falling behind the academic standards. “What I’m saying to parents a lot is, that in terms of school, people just need to relax,” she said.

It’s not like kids have a window of opportunity for particular kinds of learning, she said; they will learn the things they need to know.  “The idea that you’re behind and missing things —it’s superimposed,” she said. “There’s just a lot of panicked people out there, and that’s not helpful to the kids.”

Gilborn agrees, saying parents should lower expectations about school performance. “If your stress is reduced, your kid’s stress is reduced, and that’s probably the best thing for everyone right now.”

Cherry, the high school student, said that she is a little nervous about the future. She doesn’t want to spend all of her high school years sitting at home in front of a computer, instead of at basketball games or school dances. But she also maintains her perspective while expressing the desire shared by the world about the crisis.

“I really want this pandemic to be over,” Cherry said, “not just for me to have those experiences, but just because it’s something so awful that so many people are getting hurt by it in different ways —and I don’t want it to continue.”