Why Having Children Attend School In-Person Is So Vitally Important

By Kimberley Conlin, Head of Primary, GEMS International School – Al Khail

In the spring of 2020, schools around the world initiated a crises management plan and moved swiftly to a distance learning model. Since then, we have learned much about the virus and the impact on student learning – notably that while distance learning fulfilled an immediate need, prolonged periods have proven to have a negative effect on learning.

Some families may find themselves in exceptionally vulnerable situations – and in these cases, distance learning is a must – yet the majority of our students were able to return to campus with confidence. And although there is still a long way to go in developing absolute certainty, the benefits of having children attend school in-person are growing, not least because schools are known to play a significant role in child development, including educational achievement, health and wellbeing.

Schools like ours that have adequate resources succeeded in successfully opening at 100% capacity for the 2020-21 academic year – even prior to vaccination rollout. Although it would be a stretch to claim it was ‘back to normal’, our community adapted well to the new safety protocols, including stringent daily health screening, masks, social distancing, contact tracing, travel protocols and a range of precautions to mitigate risks. After a full academic year, the evidence shows that the benefits of having young children in school have far outweighed any calculated risk.

Childhood is a crucial time in terms of development, and schools are designed and have the expertise to enhance this important growth phase. Education has come a long way from focusing mainly on knowledge assimilation and end results, to forming a better understanding of the actual process of learning. Age 2-7 represents a critical period of brain growth and development; it is a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for holistic education. To maximise this vital period, children must be exposed to a variety of multi-sensory activities, learn a range of skills, experience deep thought processes that groom cognitive abilities, and engage in multiple disciplines such as music, language, athletics, maths, arts and science.

Face-to-face in-person education in a physical school environment has a greater impact on this stage of development. In addition, the early years of schooling mark an important period in terms of identifying delays including speech and language, social pragmatics and motor development. Active student engagement in multisensory environments is the most conducive for learning, and without in-person interaction, it becomes difficult to identify any early intervention needs.

This critical period of brain development in young children also sees rapid growth in emotional and social intelligence taking place. Sociable practices such as empathy, self-regulation, negotiation and friendships are all learning opportunities that continue to have impact well into adulthood. Schools should be seen as social institutions, offering children the chance to expand their social circles, in turn contributing to significant childhood development, including connections with teachers and other trusted adults outside of immediate family.

Then there are the in-school benefits for children around physical development. After a long period of sedentary distance learning, at GIS we focused on physical development and fitness through strength and fitness assessments, socially-distanced PE lessons, walk/run challenges and daily activities as part of our school’s MyHealth wellbeing programme delivered by staff and students. In-person classes have led to a better balance of on-screen and off-screen tasks, which is an important component of physical wellbeing.

Upon reflection, opening our doors to our youngest learners to return to campus has had an incredibly positive impact on our community wellbeing. Back in August 2020, we had more questions than answers and a real concern for what the building would ‘look and sound like’. Would our normally vibrant school become a quiet place with rows of desks and hidden smiles? Through the year’s challenges, we have learned about the true resilience of our students. We have learned that a consistent daily routine has a positive impact on student wellbeing, especially for those anxious about the uncertainty created. Before long, our Primary school hallways were once again reverberating with student laughter, and despite the safety protocols in place, learning remained active and engaging.

Throughout, the determination of our student leaders and teaching staff maintained a focus on positivity, while an equal focus on staff wellbeing also contributed to a community mentality and a ‘can do’ attitude. We learned a great deal about learning this year, and a lot about ourselves. We realised that the children were ‘watching us’ and that by modelling resilience and positivity, we were teaching perhaps the most important lesson of all. From fun learning activities and fancy dress days, to virtual and socially-distanced school events, we took care of ourselves and others, and always focused on learning.

There is no denying that COVID-19 is having a significant impact on schools, but that does not need to limit the learning opportunities or require distance learning. Inviting our students to learn on campus has been the best decision for our community, positively impacting both the intended and unintended learning.

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