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Monday
October, 3

American children mark a staggering coronavirus milestone: One year since they set foot in a classroom

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A few weeks ago, eight-year-old Isaac got out his coloured pencils and a piece of cardboard and started drawing. But it wasn’t for a school project.

He made a sign for a protest he attended with his family calling on the schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, to open back up again.

It reads: “344 days since I was in school”, and is decorated with a sad face and a hashtag reading “#noscreens!!!”.

“It’s not right though,” he says, explaining it’s now out of date.

By the time the ABC visits him, it’s actually 363 days since he and his three siblings have been out of the classroom.

That’s nearly a full year of staring into a screen, rather than learning while surrounded by peers and a teacher within reach.

A year without running around at recess. A year without sharing pencils and paintbrushes in an art class. A year without hugging, playing, fighting and whispering with friends.

“I used to be able to see a lot of my friends and I used to be able to play and, you know, interact with them.

“Now it’s just online and half the people are, like having like, technical difficulties and stuff like that”.

Three little girls and a boy sitting on the driveway outside a suburban home drawing with chalk
The Smelkinson kids have not seen in the inside of a classroom for nearly one year.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

If it wasn’t for the au pair who arrived late last year from Austria to look after Gila, Isaac and their two younger siblings, aged five and seven, Margery Smelkinson doesn’t know what she would have done.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” she admits.

“My schools have been very obstinate about opening. And I have four elementary school kids at home, and they are bored, and they’re checked out and they don’t want to be on their computers for six hours a day.”

‘There is a huge academic crisis going on’

Education experts are deeply concerned about the long-term impact of a year away from the classroom on American children.

One study suggested students are likely to return to the classroom about 30 per cent behind where they should be in terms of literacy compared to a typical school year.

They could more than 60 per cent behind in their maths gains, according to experts from Brown University.

And children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be studying remotely.

A little red heard girl wearing white headphones stares at a screen
“Oh my God, I get so bored. So bored, so bored, so bored,” says 10-year-old Gila, who has been remote learning for a year.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

A Columbia University study estimates about 58 per cent of non-white students attend schools that rely heavily on remote learning. That’s compared to 36 per cent of white children.

It’s all the more frustrating for Dr Smelkinson because she’s an infectious diseases expert and thinks schools in her district haven’t caught up with the science.

“The data is very clear now that schools can re-open safely with basic mitigation protocols in place; masking, some basic improvements in ventilation, some distancing,” she says.

“These are the things that have been able to reopen schools around the world safely.”

Dr Smelkinson is a part of a group of parents who have been lobbying the state authorities to speed up their re-opening plans.

Her younger two children are starting back at school on a week-on, week-off timetable.

Wednesdays are to be set aside for a deep clean, a measure Dr Smelkinson dismisses as “hygiene theatre”.

“There’s a huge academic crisis going on,” she says.

“There’s a physical health crisis going on with these students. Obesity rates are through the roof. And, of course, there’s a huge mental health crisis.”

A woman with dark brown hair flowing over her shoulders poses with a hand on her hip on a suburban street
Margery Smelkinson, an infectious diseases expert, is frustrated by the way her children’s schools have tackled the pandemic and remote learning.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Gila is due to be back to in-person learning sometime in April.

Even then, it’s possible she’ll be in the classroom, but still doing online lessons some days as many schools stage a phased re-opening to ensure the implementation of COVID-safe measures like social distancing in classrooms.

Dr Smelkinson says that’s not good enough.

“It should be treated as a national emergency,” she says.

Teachers face an impossible choice

In south-east Washington DC, a class of preschoolers is doing “dragon breaths” to help them settle down for the morning lesson.

“You guys look like awesome, fierce, but friendly dragons!” enthuses teacher Ebon McPherson, as she gets ready to read her four and five-year-old students a story.

An African American woman with box braids and a face mask gestures to a child on video call
Ebon McPherson, a teacher in Washington DC, has been trying to educate preschoolers remotely for 12 months.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

The classroom is led from Ms McPherson’s kitchen table and that’s the way it’s been for a full 12 months now.

This past year has been “a serious roller-coaster”, she says, “like being a first-year teacher all over again”.

“And after having had 10 years in the game, that’s kind of hard to revert back to,” she says.

Technically, she’s just checking in on her students today.

Ms McPherson was meant to go back to teaching in school last month, but she’s taken leave until the end of March because she has four of her own children still learning at home.

Her second-oldest, 17-year-old Jaylin, is asthmatic, so contracting COVID-19 could be extremely dangerous for him.

“I was concerned that if I went into the building, even if I was vaccinated, I could still carry something back to him,” she says.

A woman and a teen girl sit on a stoop with three teen boys standing behind them
Ebon is scared that going back to the classroom could mean she brings home COVID-19 to her own children.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Her concerns don’t end there.

She’s also worried that measures to help spread the potential spread of COVID-19 in the school won’t be as robust as she’d like.

“If I’m being really frank, we’ve had a history of not really getting work orders and repairs done across the district,” she says.

“Like you’d have to change the air filters every so often. And I remember asking, ‘Whose job is that?’, and no-one could tell me. So that made me nervous.”

Sending kids back, Ms McPherson thinks, seems like “an easy fix” until you look a little closer. But she’s torn.

“I really miss teaching. So I’d like to be able to go back as long as I can still support my own children who are not able to go back yet,” she says.

‘Our safety and our health goes first’

US President Joe Biden has made opening up the nation’s schools a priority for his first 100 days in office.

His administration’s $2.5 trillion stimulus plan includes $160 billion to help schools implement COVID-safe measures such as reducing class sizes, buying PPE and increasing ventilation.

Many schools are opening, at least partly, but it’s an uphill battle against some of the country’s teachers’ unions, who say their members could be at risk.

Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, says she doesn’t think teachers with underlying health conditions should be forced to return to in-person learning.

“I would hope that there would be some flexibility … to allow those teachers to continue teaching virtually until we reach a point, either where we have herd immunity until we open our schools fully,” she says.

Ms Davis says even if all teachers were ready to return to full-time teaching, not all families are willing to send their children back yet.

“One thing we do understand, we’re going to have a hybrid model of teaching for the next year,” she says.

Some students are also reluctant to return to in-person learning, particularly those from communities of colour who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

At Jaylin’s school, they are trying to get students back for the final term of the US school year after April.

Jaylin isn’t convinced that’s a good idea.

“I feel as if it’s naive to try let us go back and I feel like we should just let this whole thing settle down before we do it because our safety and our health goes first,” he says.

Parents wonder what lasting effect this year will have

A man sits with a little girl in a green parker and face mask on a jungle gym
Walker says the amount of screen time children are being exposed to during the pandemic is unhealthy.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Walker Lunn is desperate to send his daughter to school. His six-year-old Karina has never set foot in her kindergarten class.

“You’ve got to open the schools up,” her father says.

“Open them, open them. Absolutely.”

Mr Lunn, who lives in an apartment in the inner city, says the past year has been “pretty wild”.

First came financial worries, as his work with clients in the hospitality sector dried up, which left him fearful they would be homeless.

Then there was the daily juggle of looking after his two young daughters, with Karina starting school online.

“My wife and I are, are very strongly against using a lot of technology exposure for children,” he says.

Online learning is “a hard pill” for Mr Lunn to swallow, given it means hours of relentless screen time.

“The risk for children [in contracting serious cases of COVID-19] is incredibly small,” he says.

Conversely, Mr Lunn says the risks “from not going to school and not socialising is both severe and very high in probability”.

Some of the kids at Karina’s school are being invited to take part in a staged return to the classroom, but Mr Lunn doesn’t expect his daughter to have the chance until later in the year.

He worries what toll a year of staying home while a global crisis unfolded outside will have on his little girl.

“A lot of people have been told to be very afraid,” he says.

“And I think that’s a terrible way to go through life.”

A little girl sits cross legged on a jungle gym while wearing a green parker and face mask
Karina’s dad worries what long-term effects his daughter will live with after a year of isolation from her peers.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

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