Debates on online school pros and cons rage on as parents, teachers and politicians push to reopen classrooms full time. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Raging Debate: Online School Pros and Cons
As the COVID-19 shutdown nears its one-year anniversary, debates over online school pros and cons continue to flare. Before comparing political opinions, let’s review the situation.
K-12 schools around the country shuttered as infections rates surged last March. In fall 2020, some schools reopened with hybrid models — combining in-person and virtual instruction — while others continued fully virtual schooling.
By the end of the year, parents and students nationwide reported suffering from burnout. Parents struggled to juggle their children’s schooling with workplace obligations. Students and parents lamented increased screen time and ill effects of social isolation. Additionally, disadvantaged students lacking internet access and devices disappeared from virtual classrooms altogether.
On his first full day in office, President Biden committed to reopening “a majority” of K-8 schools during his administration’s first 100 days. The CDC then recommended reopening schools based on local transmission rates and ability to maintain six-foot social distancing. Today, about three-fourths of US students attend a school offering at least some in-person schooling, US News reports.
However, with some students and teachers still home, the debate rages on. Just this week, Republicans urged the House to tie school funding to reopening plans in President Biden’s COVID relief bill.
On The Right: Online School Pros and Cons
Republicans argue that virtual and hybrid learning are inadequate for students and parents. They demand a return to full-time in-person learning now, regardless of community transmission.
“The science says that the schools should be open now, every school should be open, teaching kids in the classroom,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise asserted this week. “Millions of American kids are being denied the ability to learn and to be able to compete,” he added.
The science Republicans refer to, according to The Washington Post, is a recent CDC study reporting minimal virus transmission in classrooms enforcing masking requirements. Conservatives also argue that six-foot social distancing demands are excessive.
The Republicans’ push for full-time in-person instruction isn’t new. Throughout the summer, then-President Trump argued that reopening schools was key for economic recovery. He threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that remained closed.
At the same time, Senate Republicans introduced a stimulus package that earmarked more than half of its emergency school funding for those that physically reopened in fall 2020. That bill stalled, along with the related Republican-backed Reopen Schools Act. “Republicans will keep fighting for our students and I hope Democrats will stop playing politics and join us,” Scalise said of this latest rejection.
On The Left: Online School Pros and Cons
Democrats agree that in-person schooling is more effective than distance learning but take a more cautious approach to school reopenings.
In mid-February, President Biden issued a statement highlighting how the shift to online school led to a decline in learning opportunities, mental health issues, and educational disparities. He also backed CDC reopening guidelines and urged states to prioritize vaccinating teachers — who are increasingly vocal opponents to reopening.
In a talk with NPR last week, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona backed six-foot distancing guidelines. “As you know, that’s one of the strategies that we’ve been working with, and we see in those districts that are successful bringing students back in,” he said. “So following those mitigation strategies is critical in ensuring that…”
Democrats also appear more sympathetic to racial and socioeconomic divides within the debate. Pew Research reports vast majorities of Black, Hispanic, and Asian adults agreeing school reopenings should wait until teachers are vaccinated. Fifty-one percent of White adults say the same. In largely Democratic California, families can choose to continue distance learning even if their schools reopen. Whereas Massachusetts’ education commissioner, appointed by the Republican governor, says students will likely need a medical exemption to continue distance learning next year.
The same Pew Research survey suggests that many agree with a cautious approach. “A majority of U.S. adults (59%) say K-12 schools that are not currently open for in-person instruction should wait to reopen until all teachers who want the coronavirus vaccine have received it. By comparison, 40% say these schools should reopen as soon as possible, even if many teachers who want the vaccine haven’t received it.”
Some students actually thrive in virtual classrooms. One 14-year-old student told Vox that his grades have improved since he shifted to online school. “I have ADHD, and I’ve been able to focus on my schoolwork so much better now that there’s not a constant commotion around me. That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve been able to get the work done so much faster. I don’t have to worry about people talking or other background noise.” Outlets like Forbes and The New York Times have published similar positive experiences.
Lastly, despite their rhetoric, federal and state officials have little control over schools. “Local and district leaders, and sometimes state officials, control how and when schools reopen, with guidance from Biden and his team on the margins,” The Washington Post explains.