The barriers of virtual schooling have shocked the education system, causing serious effects on early childhood development.

COVID-19 forced many professions to change the way they are operated — elementary schools included. With the spring semester being halted because of the coronavirus outbreak and the current semester being completely virtual, elementary teachers have been tasked with facilitating class to children who typically do not have the longest attention spans.

During the 2020 school semester, I have been assisting my older sister with her children’s virtual schooling. My niece is seven years old, currently in the second grade, while my nephew is three years old, currently in pre-school. Every morning, I make sure that my niece has her work at her desk, good lighting and a quiet space. Despite my preparation, there are daily hiccups in her virtual classroom. From our Wi-fi losing connection to her teacher struggling to place students in breakout rooms, virtual school for my niece has not been easy. 

My nephew is a different story. His preschool is pre-recorded in a Dora the Explorer fashion where the teacher asks questions and then waits ten seconds before she responds to them with praise for getting the answer correct. 

The only hitch is when my nephew gets the question wrong. Once she starts to praise him, he’ll yell at the computer, stating that he didn’t say that answer and that his teacher is an awful listener. He rarely pays attention to full lessons because of this problem. 

While 90% of the world’s population has had their educational experience disrupted due to COVID-19 restrictions, early childhood education has arguably taken the biggest shock of all. Additionally, children are experiencing these dramatic changes during a critical developmental period in their lives.   

The Challenges of Virtual Schooling

There are plenty of pressing issues surrounding virtual schooling: at-home technology, parent collaboration, distractions and online safety. These issues multiply once you throw in students in the early developmental stages — ages four to eight.  

Due to their young age, children are more dependent on their guardians and have shorter attention spans. It is more difficult for them to tackle the obstacles of virtual schooling in comparison to older students in high school or college. 

For example, my niece doesn’t know how to log into her school’s website to access her online quizzes and tests. She also needs help doing her hair and squeezing out toothpaste. Her ability to navigate virtual school is impeded by the fact that she is still developing certain abilities and dependent on her guardians. 

However, the pandemic has put adults under immense stress and it can make parenting difficult when many are dealing with the trauma of losing loved ones or their job. Children are often left in difficult situations where they cannot lean on an adult to help them. The most affected are individuals routinely disadvantaged by the social injustices created by the maldistribution of power, money and resources. Children who suffer from food insecurity, poverty, live in rural areas or have disabilities are at a disadvantage in virtual school settings due to their in-home barriers. 

Azusa Pacific Psychology Professor Charity Asquez, who specializes in early child life psychology, states that technology is a prevalent barrier in the current virtual format.

“Technology can’t teach in the same way a teacher in-person can teach,” Vasquez said. “So, I always stayed away from things like Google Classroom until now. It makes all the inequities already in your class, whether it be a single-parent home or poverty, multiply by ten. The transition was a learning curve for many. This is now the time to be creative and think outside the box.”

Lower attention spans among younger students pose another obstacle. A normal attention span is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. My niece’s virtual class starts at 7:55 a.m. and ends at 1:15 p.m. with two 15 minute breaks and one 25 minute break. Generally, the children are in front of their computers for two hours at a time. My niece breaks focus after 20 minutes, usually spinning in her chair singing Hamilton songs, she thinks she’s a Schuyler sister. My niece is seven, which means her attention span ranges from 21 to 35 minutes. 

Vasquez believes that attention spans do pose as a barrier in educating young students but can be overcome through simple precautionary measures.

“Setting a hard limit of what technological devices children engage in online learning is essential for setting them up for success,” Vasquez said. “This would include setting hard boundaries of what devices are allowed in their learning space while studying. Is that TV on? Turn it off. The less unnecessary technological distractions your students have, the more likely they are to be able to focus and be successful in any online class they take during this pandemic.”

Social Development

Nurturing the brain and body is very important for early childhood development, but it isn’t the only fundamental need that young children have. They also need someone to guide their social development. COVID-19 has not only halted typical childhood activities, such as attending school, playing with friends and going outdoors, but has also paused the socio-emotional learning that develops from children’s engagement in these experiences.

“Social and emotional development is a child’s ability to understand the feelings of others, control his or her own feelings and behaviors, get along with other children, and build relationships with adults,” Vasquez said. “In order for children to develop the basic skills they need such as cooperation, following directions, demonstrating self-control and paying attention, they must have social-emotional skills. Without these skills, they will face significant behavioral and emotional challenges for the rest of their lives: such as struggling to make friends, success in school and developing healthy relationships.”

As teachers are facilitating virtual learning, it is difficult for students to engage in intrapersonal development. Vasquez said that learning social cues at home is the best thing for cementing this emotional connection in children. 

“Children model their behavior from people they admire such as their parents and teachers,” Vasquez says. “When caregivers model a variety of emotions and coping strategies to manage their emotions, children learn appropriate ways to react in similar circumstances.” 

She also encourages giving kids choices so they can learn to assert their independence. Individuals who learn to make decisions and solve problems on their own end up being less of a burden on others. 

“Setting rules and expectations for behavior, giving warnings of potential consequences, offering praise and incentives for positive behaviors and ignoring unwanted behavior are associated with higher levels of social-emotional skills,” Vasquez said. “When children act out, discuss the effects of their behavior on others to promote empathy, perspective-taking, and prosocial behavior.”

Once The Pandemic Has Passed

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to adapt to a new socially-distanced reality. But once the pandemic passes, how will students transition to in-person learning?

“Just like every situation, the transition is not always easy for everyone,” Vasquez states. “However, after we have passed the worst transition, which was unforeseen and also abrupt, the transition back will not be as hard, besides there will be time for preparation” 

After nearly two semesters of online learning, many children will struggle to readjust the same way they struggled to adjust to the virtual school setting in the first place. 

“Kids do best when they know what to expect, so establishing normalcy and a routine is  very important,” Vasquez said.“ Creating a schedule is essential. This helps kids anchor themselves to the day and meet goals. When schedules are too open-ended, kids feel that instability and can be more anxious or display more disruptive behavior. Children need predictability.  Therefore, preparing them ahead of time is imperative.

In the initial months of reintegration, vaccinations won’t be widely available according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students will still have to social distance. This means that parents will have to prepare their children to wear masks for long durations during school.

“Practice putting it on every time you leave the house,” Vasquez says. “Show your child how to stretch out the mask so that it covers from the top of the nose to the bottom of the chin.”

Vasquez stressed the importance of slowly getting back into pre-pandemic habits as well.  The pandemic has created a reality where wearing pajamas during class is now an option along with other new commonalities. For successful integration, the return of traditional routines is a must.

“Slowly moving towards prior routines will be essential in-home preparation for reintegration. Little things like getting fully dressed or waking up a bit earlier to account for the would-be commute, can help students be better prepared for the return to in-person learning. Above all, self-care among students will be the determining factor in successful reintegration. If the students are in a healthy mental space, they will be able to adapt quickly to their prior reality. Getting outside is also great for mental and physical health and is a safer socializing option. Encourage your child to be physically active whenever possible. If the distance is manageable, consider walking or biking to school instead of driving or taking public transit. When weather permits, aim for family walks in the evening. This is a good opportunity to get moving while also connecting at the end of your day. If a child has a group of friends, talk with their parents about committing to only being with those friends. The social aspect of childhood is so important, but it has to be done in a safe way.”

The barriers of virtual schooling are evident: students of all ages have been forced into a new educational reality due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in the early developmental stages, in particular, are experiencing a pause in their typical routine that has had serious effects on their development. Parents play a crucial role in continuing their student’s development at home, as well as preparing them for what’s to come after the pandemic.