Late last year, Governor Ivey urged school districts in Alabama to reopen schools and allow students the option to return to the classroom, while many school districts across the country continued with virtual learning. Alabama was ahead of the curve on what recent CDC guidance made clear – with reasonable health precautions like distancing and wearing masks – students and teachers could safely return to the classroom and resume in-person learning. In Alabama, most of our students have been back in the classroom since late last year, and time has proven classrooms are safe and the transmission and infection rates in schools are incredibly low. School districts across the country should look to Alabama as a model for how to safely get students back in the classroom.
Although it will likely be years before we know the full impact remote learning has on our students, we are already seeing negative impacts on students across the nation. Multiple studies have shown students are falling significantly behind academically, with younger and lower-income students disproportionately suffering. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), Virginia’s largest school system just outside of D.C., compared data from 2019 and 2020, and what they found was shocking. The percentage of F’s earned by middle and high schoolers nearly doubled and students with disabilities saw a massive spike in F’s. It will be nearly impossible for students to make up for this lost time, putting them at a severe disadvantage as they enter the work force in the future.
The impact on students’ grades is just one small part of the picture, though. What is even more concerning is the toll virtual learning and isolation have taken on the mental health of students everywhere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports mental health emergency room visits for children aged 5-17 increased by 25-30 percent between March and October of 2020, which is an alarming statistic. Experts at the Medical University of South Carolina report the number of children attempting or completing suicide has skyrocketed in recent months, and one of the primary causes of this is the isolation resulting from virtual learning.
Schools are more than just a place for academic instruction – in fact, schools perform many different functions critical to the development of young people. For 50 percent of our state’s public-school students, school is the primary source for nutritious free meals and healthcare. For most, schools are the primary source of socialization and character development. The science is clear that students belong in the classroom, and Alabama has proven this over the past 6 months. The rest of the nation should follow Alabama’s example and allow our students back in the classroom where they belong.
Jerry Carl represents Alabama’s First Congressional District. He lives in Mobile with his wife Tina.