Balancing Safety and Student Success During COVID-19

By Emily Reed


As COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surged amidst holiday gatherings and the continued spread of the highly-contagious Omicron variant, teachers, parents, school districts, and government officials have clashed over K-12 students returning for in-person classes.


Teachers across the country have raised concerns about personal safety as well as the safety of students at a time when cases are spiking. This past week in Chicago, the district canceled four school days after teachers refused to give in-person lessons over health and safety fears. Concerns over insufficient testing, limited means to social distance, and the difficulty of mask enforcement as well as the high contagiousness of the virus are all issues that teachers and some parents have raised across the country. One anonymous teacher in Sacramento, California told a local newspaper, “We’re putting students at risk… We go home every single day wondering, OK, did I catch it from somebody?” This teacher’s worries highlight the dual concern over both educator and student safety.


At the same time, virtual learning has been challenging for teachers, students, and parents alike. According to a Horace Mann report, the majority of public school teachers reported “significant” learning loss from students, and the same report stated that 97% of teachers reported at least some learning loss from students. These losses are not only academic; students are also losing out on in-person interaction that is vital for social-emotional development. Not only do students lose out on socialization and support from peers and teachers, but virtual schooling also means less access to mental health services. This loss of services seems to be having an effect; over the course of the pandemic, “more than 25% of high school students reported worsened emotional and cognitive health.”


It is clear that virtual learning has brought about challenges for most students, but under-resourced communities have undoubtedly been hit the hardest. This is partially due to what researchers have coined “the digital divide.” According to one study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, nearly all surveyed 15 year-olds from privileged backgrounds said they had access to a computer to work on, “while about 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not.”


In addition to teacher safety and student learning, many parents are also negatively affected by virtual schooling. Last year, the CDC reported that parents of students who were learning virtually were “more likely to report signs of negative physical, mental and emotional health.” Nearly 15% of parents from the same study said they were using drugs or alcohol to cope with the added stress.


Right now, as the pandemic continues to claim lives every day in the United States and around the world, people have reason to be scared. Teachers, parents, and students alike are rightfully concerned about health and safety issues. At the same time, virtual learning has led to educational and emotional setbacks for many students. So what should we do? There are some options to improve virtual learning; for example, one study from China found that consistent interaction and real-time virtual classes led to less learning loss because students felt more connected to classmates and teachers. Still, virtual learning is an imperfect practice that will continue to bring about challenges for America’s students.


The hardest part to accept is that there is no “right” answer. The coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, and school districts, administrators, and government officials will have to continue trying to find a balance between safety and learning. It is no easy task.