Fatigue, stress and exacerbated inequalities: after nine months of the pandemic, a majority of American children have not returned to school normally, disrupting the lives of families and teachers and fueling concerns about the long-term impact of this unprecedented disruption.
Victoria Mendez, a New York cleaner of Mexican origin, had hoped to see her 14-year-old son’s school finally reopen after Christmas, but with the worsening pandemic in the country, she no longer believes in it.
“It’s very stressful … he doesn’t study anymore,” says this 50-year-old who is raising her two children on her own. When she leaves for work – only three days a week, the pandemic has caused her to lose her full-time job – she worries about whether he “is online or not with school”.
The son of Noelle Cullimore, who benefited before the arrival of the coronavirus from educational and psychological support services, lost his footing at school in the first months. Recently, this hyperactive child returns to school two days a week – an improvement, according to her, even if she fears in the long term “a huge hole in her education”.
Even families without particular difficulties worry about the effects on their children of this prolonged closure.
Amy, a well-to-do New Yorker, can’t wait to see school reopen soon: even though her nine-year-old daughter has easily adapted to wearing masks and having birthday parties on Zoom, she says the kids “have a lot. suffered this year ”, and lost“ their whole routine of life ”.
“I no longer slept”
Teachers seem even more tense than parents. Such as Maggie Mock, a teacher from Phoenix, Arizona, who since March has only taught virtually for fear of infecting her family.
Despite her 11 years of experience and a real dedication to her profession, this 35-year-old mother has “considered resigning many times”.
She says she is “exhausted” by the reversals of the authorities on the opening conditions of schools – which forced her to change students during the year and temporarily take a double level class – and by the manipulation of ‘constantly evolving digital tools.
The past few months “have been very hard,” she says. “I was no longer sleeping”.
Now a little more serene, she is especially worried about her students.
On paper, there are 24 of them, but she rarely sees more than 18 behind their screen, following the daily math lesson.
” Where are they? »She wonders, after trying in vain to contact the parents.
Another tragedy for this conscientious teacher: she can no longer catch pupils in difficulty.
Previously, “I have never had a student who refuses to do what I ask: in front of you, they do not have this option. But in virtual terms, it is possible ”.
The students who drop out the most: Those whose parents don’t follow their children’s online education closely, she says.
But parental investment is often only a symptom of socio-economic inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, including access to the internet or to health care, experts stress.
A McKinsey study published last week estimated that in early fall, after a few months of all-virtual education, black and Hispanic students were already on average three to five months behind in math, down from one to two. months only for whites.
All this is fueling the debate on the need to reopen establishments, also influenced by the European example: even with the resurgence of the pandemic since the fall, most European countries have kept schools open.
Since September, an analysis of the decisions of the 13,000 American school districts – often free to open or close their schools – shows a trend towards more face-to-face, despite an epidemic out of control: while 62% of American students were taking courses entirely online at the beginning of September, they were only 48.3% this week, according to the site burbio.com.
A pioneer in this development in large cities, New York reopened the doors of its elementary schools last week amid the resurgence of the virus, promising to welcome full-time students again soon.
But in a decentralized country like the United States, with school districts with very unequal resources, there is no “one size fits all,” says Megan Collins, co-head of a school health program at the university. Johns Hopkins.
While waiting for a complete reopening of schools, for Nicholas Wagner, child psychologist at Boston University, it is necessary to do “as for the distribution of (first) vaccines”: to serve in priority “those which are most at risk – the youngest and those who have the most barriers to learning ”.