SALT LAKE CITY — As children gather in reading circles, do multiplication races on the whiteboard or peer into science lab microscopes, it’s easy to recognize that schools are a house of learning. 

But a lot more goes on at school than academics. And that has some experts worried as administrators figure out what the new school year should look like, including whether kids should physically return to classrooms or continue to learn online.

While many are rightly concerned with keeping children safe from COVID-19, some warn there could be a cost to keeping kids away from the classrooms.

For many students, schools are a critical anchor. For instance:

  • Children develop skills that contribute to social-emotional intelligence: sharing, empathy for others, interacting appropriately and managing and expressing emotions.
  • Without access to school nutrition programs, children might go hungry.
  • Students learning English who cannot physically attend school have diminished opportunities to learn and practice language skills.
  • Students with disabilities may not receive the same level of help from specially trained educators and aides who provide individualized learning and other critical supports, including speech and other therapy. 
  • Watchful adult eyes at schools often spot and report children they suspect are neglected or abused at home.
  • Some students more easily fall behind academically without school’s structure and supports.

While lauding academics, a joint statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association acknowledged the challenges and summarized other vital roles of schools: Children “learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.

“Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities and consequences for children that must be addressed. This pandemic is especially hard on families who rely on school lunches, have children with disabilities, or lack access to internet or health care.”

Overcoming barriers

Holly Bell, Utah State Board of Education equity and advocacy specialist, warns many students will return to school with significant gaps in learning. Those deficits may be compounded for students with disabilities, English language learners or students from low-income households who could not fully participate in online learning.

Some barriers are physical. Families with access to technology and internet connections may struggle if multiple students in the household share a single device. Others lack access to technology. Some parents cannot help guide their students’ learning, either because they’re essential workers who aren’t at home or because they lack skills and adequate education themselves.

Schools must figure out how to help those kids, especially if they’ve fallen behind while learning online. It’s widely believed in-person classes provide the best chance to help those who are losing ground.

If kids lag in school, consequences can be far reaching. 

“There’s enough research to show that if — especially in the younger ages — they get behind, it really impacts them in progressing through high school and then there are higher dropout rates,” Bell said.

Research also shows students living in poverty have the widest achievement gaps, which educators believe will worsen with interruptions in in-person learning. 

Many low-income children will return to school after experiencing other trauma, too, particularly if their parents lost jobs or housing or if family members became ill or died from coronavirus, which has disproportionately affected Blacks and Hispanics.

Students are also returning to school after protests over racial inequality and social injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“That’s really impacting students. It’s stressful. It’s causing trauma,” Bell said. “There are these extra barriers, especially for students in poverty.” 

Bell recommends considering the social-emotional needs of the child first as they return to school. Learning gaps can’t be addressed until children are internally and externally in a safe environment where they’re ready to work, she said.

She tells teachers and staff to focus on their relationship with each other and with students. “The learning will follow,” Bell said.

Tori Longwell, who will be a first grader at Highland Park Elementary School, plays kickball at her home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Longwells have decided as a family to return to remote learning this fall due to risks to Tori, who has Down syndrome, but also to the rest of the family. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Vulnerable kids

Amanda Longwell, a Salt Lake mother of three school-age children, said in-person teaching and learning is the best option for her children, particularly Tori, 7, who has Down syndrome.

But as the pandemic lingers, that choice is off the table due to health concerns for the entire family.

“I feel like my job is to protect my children and my family,” she said. Tori may be at higher risk of complications if she contracts COVID-19, and Longwell said she worries about her older children getting exposed at school, too.

She and her husband, Jordan, hope Tori will be able to live independently as an adult. If that isn’t possible, they know they need to take care of themselves so they can care for her.

“I don’t want to see my child pass away, I don’t want to see our families fall apart because we were too quick” to return to school, she said.

Jordan, Tori, Alexa, Jackson and Amanda Longwell are photographed at their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Longwells have decided as a family to return to remote learning this fall due to risks to Tori, who has Down syndrome, but also to the entire family. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Students with disabilities often require more structure, which is something schools can provide. It’s a struggle for online schools, according to Diane Myers, senior vice president of special education-behavior management practices at Specialized Education Services Inc. The company provides services for students with special needs who have challenges that prevent them from succeeding in a traditional classroom.

The past few months have presented learning challenges for everyone, she said, including both parents and teachers adapting to online learning when they’ve relied on schools for direct services in the past. She believes the school closures have given parents a better view of their children’s educational needs and that many parents have forged bonds with educators, exploring what works in ways that will allow parents to be strong partners when school resumes.

What can’t be taught — and something teachers are more apt than parents to have — is “the gift of objectivity,” she said. Students with special needs benefit from that.

More than any other aspect of education, schooling for students with disabilities is specialized, focused on the individual’s needs, she said. The uniqueness of the pandemic has called for everyone involved to be patient and gracious with themselves and with each other.

Dan Scott, of Forsythe County, Georgia, told the Deseret News that teaching his son who is on the autism spectrum has been hard. But it has also bolstered the relationship he has with the 11-year-old’s teachers and he feels like he’s better equipped to work with them when his son returns to the classroom.

For now, the Longwell family plans to start the school year online. The couple works from home, which will enable them to oversee their kids’ learning. They are optimistic that educators, after Utah’s sudden pivot to distance learning last spring, have now had time and training to refine their practices. 

“Online learning definitely has its challenges,” Longwell said, noting Tori has a learning disability and intellectual delays, so in-person education is critical. So is social peer modeling that happens at school.

“So the online schooling, it’s better than nothing. It’s not what quality, in-person schooling could accomplish for her,” she said.

Tori Longwell, who will be a firstgrader at Highland Park Elementary School, is photographed at her home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Longwells have decided as a family to return to remote learning this fall due to risks to Tori, who has Down syndrome, but also to the entire family. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Students with special needs have a harder time engaging online and those who receive some kind of therapy at school also struggle with remote learning, said Dr. Paul Wirkus, Salt Lake-area pediatrician and head of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“All those things are much more difficult to provide remotely,” he said.

Other vulnerable students benefit from school in more indirect ways.

“No matter what type of family a kid comes from, schools are designed to be a stable place for them to be, with consistent classrooms, consistent teachers, a consistent group of kids they spend time with and consistent schedules,” he added.

Schools are an actual haven for some children, Wirkus said, playing a significant role in detecting when children are falling behind because of stressors in their family life, including abuse and neglect.

Some abuse may be unreported during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Utah schools instituted a soft closure in March, reports to state child welfare authorities dropped precipitously. From March through May 2019, Utah schools made 2,689 referrals to the Division of Child and Family Services. For the same period in 2020, referrals from schools dropped to 956.

More than 1 in 5 of all reports to the state came from schools during that window in 2019. In 2020, schools accounted for just 9.83% of referrals, according to state data.

Schools help solve other problems, too. Kids who are hungry or at risk may find their most consistent source of food at school, through school breakfast and lunch programs. Good nutrition is important for learning, said Dr. Angelo Giardino, pediatrician and chief medical officer at Primary Children’s Hospital, with a joint position as chairman of the department of pediatrics at University of Utah. 

An April New England Journal of Medicine study said food from schools or child care centers meet up to two-thirds of children’s nutritional needs and are generally healthier than food from home. The study noted short-term health effects of missed meals, including “fatigue and reduced immune response, which increase the risk of contracting communicable diseases. Even brief periods of food insecurity can cause long-term developmental, psychological, physical and emotional harms.

“Children from low-income households, already at higher risk for poorer health and lower academic performance than children from high-income households, may be further disadvantaged by nutrition shortfalls.”

Kathleen Britton, director of child nutrition programs for the Utah State Board of Education, said Utah schools serve about 64 million meals per year.

About one-third of students at schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program qualify for free or reduced-price meals and 1 in 6 Utah children live in food-insecure households.

“Sometimes these are the only meals they have during the day. It’s very sad to say, but their breakfast, lunch — and a lot of these schools in high-need areas also serve supper and after-school snacks — these are their only meals they receive during the day,” Britton said.

Studies show that healthy kids get better grades, attend school more often and behave better in class. Making time for physical activity and nutrition in school is not a break from academics but an investment in higher academic performance.

Britton said Utah schools got creative to continue to feed children during the soft closure of schools last spring — preparing grab-and-go meals, offering curbside pick-up service and even delivering some meals to bus stops by school buses.

Learning to relate

School may also be the setting where children who struggle socially, emotionally or academically find help. Even kids who don’t struggle significantly benefit. 

“Developmentally, it’s really healthy for kids to be in a structured environment, to be socializing with their friends and age mates,” said Giardino. He believes younger kids have a harder time learning online than older kids. For those and other reasons, Giardino said it’s beneficial educationally and developmentally to get kids back into classrooms. 

While socializing is good for older kids — and important from a cognitive or developmental perspective — “they’re probably a lot more able to handle remote learning,” Giardino said. “I’m just worried about them. I would like them to have some classroom time because I think there’s some real value in doing that.” 

Giardino said the pandemic makes creatively balancing interests important.

“I’m not sure that has to be five days a week, the way we used to do it 7:00 to 3. I don’t know if you absolutely need to have exactly how it was before. I’d love to see some approaches that get the kids back into the classroom in a safe way.“

Bell said some students say they can meet their social needs via technology. She doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t care what a student tells you about being on their phone and socializing that way, it’s not the same. We need to be around each other and I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for them to try to socially distance from each other after they’ve been apart so long,” she said.

Social aspects are particularly important as children begin to place more emphasis on peer relationships, starting around middle school, Leventhal said.

“A lot of the extracurricular activities that kids engage in at school are really what connected them to school and their peers. ... And that’s likely not part of the return to school. I think that may have been a bigger impact on children than we realize,” she added, referring to when classes moved online.

Especially for older students, lack of extracurricular activities could be hard, because that’s what’s most meaningful about school to some students and where they find communities and identity. As many schools reduce those opportunities, students may lose out on more than fun.

Several experts said they hope financially strapped school districts will think twice before reducing expenses by cutting electives and activities kids love. Classes like choir or art or drama are critically important for some students.

Schools also allow children to form relationships with teachers — and if those interactions are positive — they may compensate for a less positive relationship some children might have at home. They could be very important for some, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Kids not in school have fewer opportunities to forge relationships outside a family network. 

Parker Huston, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, agrees. “The environment at school is so much more rich in socialization than home, typically.”

Even if life at home is great, Huston believes kids benefit from being away from home and interacting with other adult authority figures. Kids act differently at school than with their parents, which is one reason mental health experts rely on reports from school.

School’s also one of the few times and places kids turn off distractions like personal technology and social media to focus on other people, he said. 

What to watch for

Signs of stress are often contradictory.

Parents should be aware of physical indicators, including problems sleeping and eating, especially among young children who may not be able to articulate feelings. Older kids might not get out of bed in the morning — and if kids have a combination of online and in-class learning, mixed routine may lead to sleep challenges.

Changes in behavior, from trouble sleeping to wanting to sleep in a parent’s bed, could indicate a child struggles with going back to school or being at home all the time and not interacting with other kids, said Schoppe-Sullivan.

Older kids may act out or withdraw. 

Experts say some kids will be anxious going back to school because of the possibility of getting sick, while others may be anxious if they’re not allowed to return. Parents need to pay attention to how their children react in this extraordinary situation. 

Schoppe-Sullivan believes it will be hard if schools reopen, then close temporarily because of outbreaks, which some experts consider inevitable with coronavirus circulating. From a developmental perspective, she said, there’s some benefit to sticking with virtual learning for a while for stability.

“That’s a concern that I have because we know this kind of chaos and change in routines ... it’s so disruptive,” she said, including for families trying to plan work schedules. 

“I would say that I haven’t seen enough emphasis placed on stability and routine and that’s part of what is so great about school for kids. Even if their home is not a place they can count on to be stable and predictable, often school is. But if it’s not going to be like that, then I don’t know. It just becomes more complicated.” 

Parents who are concerned should consider setting up a telehealth appointment or phone call with the child’s doctor, Wirkus and Schoppe-Sullivan said. That can help parents figure out whether what a child is experiencing is a typical reaction to a most atypical situation or whether it requires more significant attention.