Remote learning comes with risks. It also comes with benefits.
Since the pandemic hit, local school districts have spent several months preparing for the transition to virtual classes. They bought thousands of laptops. Teachers spent days in training for online teaching. Hundreds of hotspots have been distributed — all because, for at least the next month, students of the Rio Grande Valley will be learning through a screen.
The decision to shift schools to online platforms was made with the safety and health of students in mind, but another challenge lies ahead: maintaining the intellectual and psychological development that normal school settings foster for students at home.
One of the most pressing topics of online learning is the lack of physical activity it prompts, since exercise is integral not only for the physical health of students, but also their mental wellness.
“Exercising is a key component to wellness, because the mind and body are connected,” said Dr. Adrian Paolo Agapito, a general psychiatrist at DHR Health. “And if they are not physically in school, they are not being physically active.”
When exercising, your body releases endorphins, a hormone that relieve stress and triggers positive moods. The loss of after school athletic programs, Agapito said, could be difficult for many student athletes who drew much motivation from sports.
“A lot of students rely on sports and extracurricular activities to provide them a certain level of physical adequacy, and also a form of mental therapy, because that is what they enjoy doing outside of the classroom,” he said. “And if they now have to be taking all online classes and cannot do what they enjoy doing, that can have a negative impact on the patient’s mental health.”
So, Agapito advises parents to engage in daily physical activities with their kids, such as walks or other exercises.
Agapito said there has been a surge in patients at the behavioral center, and most adolescent cases stem from the anxiety of the pandemic, and depression of isolation. However, he expects kids and parents to soon adjust to the new reality.
“There are a lot of positives and benefits of online learning, I just think that since it is something new to everybody, it’s something we have to adapt to,” he said. “They are not used to being physically around their peers, but as we continue to implement online learning, as we continue to promote social media platforms and video and audio communication, I really feel that students will eventually adapt appropriately and their social skills won’t be as negatively impacted as it is right now during this adjustment period.”
Agapito noted that online learning will help students become more familiar with using technology, a skill that most careers are now dependent on.
“We are living in a society where everything is being done through computers now,” Agapito said. “We have social media, everyone is using computers to navigate every aspect of their jobs. So, I really feel that online learning will allow students to adapt to the technological advance of a society at such an early stage.”
However, Alfonso Mercado, a psychology associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said parents and school should be cautious of how much time students spend looking at screens.
“Having a lot of screen time can definitely affect their learning and their learning style,” Mercado said. “The additional screen time can lead to heightening distractibility and attention problems, which is why it should be limited to just a couple or so hours a day.”
He said that health officials have named a new condition stemming from excessive amounts of online work: Zoom fatigue.
Social scientists have said Zoom fatigue — a condition that can stem from a variety of media platforms — is not only the result of too many meetings, but is the extreme exhaustion that comes with the sudden heavy adaptation of a technology-based way of working.
Video chatting requires more efforts because it is more difficult to interpret non-verbal communication. Face-to-face interactions give way for social cues, like hand and body movements. So, for students who will soon have to be learning completely online, the risks of Zoom fatigue are high.
“When that Zoom fatigue is present, it is going to be very hard to maintain information,” Mercado said. “It is going to be hard to process and engage in cognitive processing, making sense out of things, and it can also affect the way we express ourselves and communicate… hopefully schools are integrating breaks in between classes, and nutritional and mental health breaks.”
He emphasized: “If they are tired, they are not going to learn.”
A way parents can help their students adapt to online learning is by keeping as much of the morning routines they were used to, Mercado said.
Though most children dread waking up at the break of dawn to get ready for school, the action of getting dressed and going to school is integral for getting them mentally prepared to learn. Online learning eliminates most of that routine.
“We need light to wake up in the day, that was our regular routine pre-COVID,” he said. “We go outside in the morning and we get sunlight, and we get energized by that.”
Now, all they have to do is turn on a laptop and sign in to class.
Mercado advises students to have a designated area in the house for school work, so they can associate that spot with learning. He said some parents are dressing their kids in their school uniforms still, since that is what they are used to.
“We want to make sure their learning environment is conducive, that it is an environment without many distractions,” he said. “Turn off all electronics, the cell phone, the radio, the TV. There needs to be an area of the home where it is free from distraction.”
Though, online learning also pulls students away from the distractions found in classroom settings, Agapito said.
“Online learning will allow more students to be more focused strictly on what they need to learn in school, and it won’t allow them to be easily distracted by peer-related distractions,” he said.
Examples he gave were bullying and exposure to negative influences, such as drugs.
Though, living through a global pandemic while still having to complete assignments and lessons can be mentally taxing, Agapito said, so he advises families to take the opportunity to lean on each other more to keep their spirits up.
“Engage in more family-oriented activities, have game night or eat dinner together, do assignments together,” he said. “This will all play a vital role in continuing to improve their mental health regardless of the isolation they are being required to take.”
However, there will still be some children who will have a difficult time coping with the loneliness, and Agapito said in that case, they should reach out to local counseling services.
Mercado said it is important to be aware of children’s mental health as the virtual school year approaches, because the stress of the pandemic, compounded by the responsibilities of learning can be overwhelming.
“Dealing with all of that during these uncertain times, there are so many things happening at the same time where we will see a spike in psychiatric emergencies and crises,” he said. “Students could be seeing their families being diagnosed, or passing away, and on top of that they have to go to school. So I hope that there is some flexibility in regards to certain unexpected events that could happen.”