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When it comes to reopening schools, not all screen time is bad | COMMENTARY

Valley View School District superintendent Dr. Michael Boccella, left, gives a thumbs-up to students learning virtually with first grade teacher Chris Olson on the first day of school at Valley View Elementary School in Blakely, Pennsylvania on Thursday, August 27.
Valley View School District superintendent Dr. Michael Boccella, left, gives a thumbs-up to students learning virtually with first grade teacher Chris Olson on the first day of school at Valley View Elementary School in Blakely, Pennsylvania on Thursday, August 27. (Christopher Dolan/AP)

The Baltimore City school system’s decision to begin the school year with distance learning is a responsible one given the risks inherent to on-site learning during a pandemic. The proposed plan aims to deliver high quality, intellectually stimulating instruction to meet the needs of our children.

Yet even before the plan came to light, a baseless wave of complaining began across social media and text chats: “It’s too much screen time,” they said. Too. Much. Screen time.

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To refute this argument, I assert that there is worthless screen time and there is screen time that can be engaging and enriching, connective and constructive. The video game Minecraft does not equate to a virtual live lesson on biology. The video game Fortnight does not equate to an online, live math class.

But I encourage those who take issue with the virtual learning concept to reconsider the fuss they are making. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Think back to World War II and the “Greatest Generation.” Victory Gardens were grown and Rosie the Riveter emerged from the kitchen. Our grandparents rationed food and clothing and made great personal sacrifices to benefit the greater good.

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Seventy-five years later, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endlessly implores the modern citizenry to abide by a few simple rules, our Twitter feeds are awash with grown adults throwing tantrums because they have to wear a mask at the grocery store. Shameful. To be flexible with the education of our children is not a small ask by any measure. But let’s be honest, it’s not on par with shipping loved ones off to Omaha Beach.

I want to remind those who would complain, that the distance learning plan is intended to support the broadest swath of students possible. I think it’s safe to assume that our emergency-induced experience in the springtime will not resemble our forthcoming experience in September (come on Baltimore City Public Schools, don’t let us down). Given a competent roll out, the virtual platform will be a lifeline to those who do not have a caregiver able to support a structured and enriching learning environment.

Lest we forget, public school is a product for consumption by households of every socioeconomic stripe, not only those who are well above the poverty line, and not only for those who breathlessly advocate for their own self interests. The system is not meant to bend to the whims of families capable of organizing learning pods, or those with the option of arranging private school alternatives.

We can all agree that distance learning is not the ideal mechanism to educate students, and it is true that not all students need a full day of virtual offerings. A parent who has the time and resources to take their child out to the county for yoga in the woods should be free do that. If families want to band together to form learning co-ops, there should be nothing stopping them.

But acting in obstructionist ways toward the implementation of an equitable plan will only harm those students who would otherwise be well served by the option of logging on and engaging with live virtual educators who care and who are there to help. In fact, this may be the only shot that many of the underserved, underrepresented, and at-risk students have to survive this unprecedented challenge.

We can also all agree that there is a group of children for which distance learning simply will not work due to individual characteristics that require one-on-one, small group, live, and/or highly individualized instruction. This creates a major challenge for parents who have to balance working from home while managing a child who cannot engage in virtual learning. This is where things get complicated, and this is not a baseless parent complaint. One might argue that offering virtual learning and keeping the vast majority of students out of the school building could allow students with greater needs to receive the in-person, yet physically-distanced specialized educational services they need.

There are children in our community who, no matter what, will fall behind as a result of the current circumstances. This is a tragic and unfortunate truth, but Baltimore City Public Schools, and other districts across Maryland, are correct in proposing a plan that offers a full day of educational content for students to access, even if it is through a screen.

Shelley McDermott (shelley.m.mcdermott@gmail.com) is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the postdoctoral child clinical psychology fellowship at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

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