Repeating remote learning due to Omicron will be a big mistake

With Omicron cases on the rise, debates are once again brewing on whether or not schools should close. In fact, some schools have already returned to remote learning, in states like New York, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Repeating remote learning, however, is a bad idea. Recent reports continue to show the severity of the damage that has been done to kids through remote learning.

Last Friday, for example, the New York Times profiled Liberty High School, which is located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Like most schools across the country, educators are reporting increased cases of anxiety and depression, among other things.

According to the article,

The school’s wellness center has been overwhelmed with students struggling with anxiety and depression since the first day back. By the end of September, fights were frequent, and “blunt and flagrant disrespect” was rampant, Dr. Bailey said. In October, homecoming pep rallies were canceled for freshmen and sophomores, partly to follow Covid-19 restrictions and minimize crowds. By November, the principal was averaging at least one “informal hearing” per day for students who had been suspended.

By December, referrals for the school’s Student Assistance Program — in which teams of counselors and administrators coordinate resources for troubled students — had reached 300, compared with a total of 500 for the entire 2019-20 school year. At a recent meeting, where administrators sifted through their caseloads of “sapped” students, they described them in blunt terms: “feral,” “a mess” and “work in progress.”

Students have especially been hurt by extended remote learning, which has caused many kids to regress in developing social skills.

At Liberty, vestiges of remote learning linger. Many students wear pajamas, the dress code of bedrooms turned to classrooms and a reflection of disrupted sleep schedules. Students move through the hallways sluggishly, looking at their phones or straight ahead, as if still staring at computer screens.

Last year, 66 percent of students did hybrid learning, and more than 33 percent went completely virtual. Students and educators use terms like “re-entry,” “recivilizing” and “reintegrating” to describe the transition back to a more normal routine. Covid restrictions still prevent full engagement. Masks have encouraged anonymity and discouraged dialogue.

“People don’t know how to communicate anymore,” said Jazlyn Korpics, 18, a senior at Liberty. “Everybody’s a robot now — their minds are warped.”

Josiah Correa, 18, said that while he was a senior at Liberty, “every day it feels like I’m starting a new school.”

And as found in most reports, one of the biggest issues facing students is increased anxiety.

The cheeriest part of the school is the wellness center, with social workers, therapists, bean bag chairs and soothing paint colors. Dr. Bailey used grant dollars to build it a year and a half ago as part of his plan to make Liberty a “trauma-informed school.” Even before the pandemic, the district was looking to use the center as a model for addressing the mental health crisis brewing in Bethlehem and beyond.

Nancy Ettwein, who ran the wellness center until November, said that the need for services at the beginning of the school year was “off the Richter scale.”

“The No. 1 thing is anxiety,” she said in September. “Anxiety about being in the classroom, being in front of people, speaking to people, anyone looking at them.”

This is well in line with what I wrote last month about Minnesota educators and how they are witnessing the harm that school closures have inflicted on kids. It is also in line with CDC data showing that mental health issues are worsening among adolescents.

Considering that kids face a significantly low risk of dying or getting sick from the COVID-19 virus, school closures will (once again) do very little good, while further harming our already-suffering students.