Education is more than just a learning experience. In many ways, it is a social determinant of health. It is clear and established that there are inequities in terms of education, based on socioeconomic status in the United States.
The link between education and health is well-known and highly researched. Access to both health care and education are closely tied to and mitigated by one’s geographic location and socioeconomic status. Those holding higher-paying jobs, which is closely linked to educational attainment, have the ability to live and move to locations in closer proximity to better schools, more nutritional food sources, transportation, and health services (pg. 46). Hence, given the current situation in the United States, namely the closure of schools on a total or hybrid basis, students find themselves in the midst of an educational crisis. While it is important to note that many of these issues were already at play and impacting students and teachers, and disproportionately those in low-income and predominantly Black and Brown communities, the closure of schools and impacts of other statewide restrictions have certainly exacerbated these issues, with the potential for long-lasting effects. Some of the identified areas of concern are indicated below:
Loss of nutrition
Many children, in low-socioeconomic status communities, rely on getting some of their key meals while at school. Although some schools are accommodating this need. by allowing students to pick up breakfast/lunch from their schools, even while schools are closed, this is not the case for all schools. Although there has been some concern, prior to the closures, that food provided at schools may not be optimally healthy, the provision of what is available, keeps many children from experiencing hunger.
The shift to remote learning resulted in many schools using platforms like Google Classroom/Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other online resources to transition face-to-face instruction to virtual learning environments. Although schools have welcomed technology and the use of computer programs, smartboards, tablets, and even phones, to enhance instruction and keep up with changing times, school closures have caused students and educators to spend their entire day looking at screens. Research shows that prolonged screen time can negatively impact eyesight as the eyes work harder to focus and adjust to the blue light. Although individuals of any age are affected by prolonged screen time, children’s eyes are especially susceptible to the long-term effects. Including but not limited to, dry/fatigued eyes, headaches, difficulty staying focused and retinal damage. Using blue-light-blocking glasses or filters/apps can help minimize these issues, but may not be enough to completely resolve the issue. Additionally, these glasses can come at an increased cost to parents/families who may already be experiencing increased financial strain in the wake of lost jobs and income due to other pandemic-related closures and restrictions.
Isolation and lack of social activities
School closures and other statewide restrictions limited or completely shut down some of the extracurricular and social events that students participated in. Whether they were sports, academic enrichment, or purely social in nature, these extracurricular activities provide opportunities for students to form strong bonds with friends, release tensions and manage stress and anxiety. These teams and clubs give students the ability to develop skills that are useful in both their academic and social lives and explore various aspects of their identities. Through participation in extracurriculars, students can tap into their passions and find ways to connect what they’re learning in school with the parts of themselves that make them feel happiness and joy and find healthy ways to cope with the daily stressors that arise in life, which they can carry into adulthood. Without these activities, many students have found themselves spending prolonged periods of time alone or without other peers their own age to spend time with. Even in schools that have shifted back to face-to-face or hybrid learning models, statewide restrictions may lead to the cancellation of after school programs and social events like dances and pep rallies, which creates an imbalanced schooling experience and can result in similar increases in anxiety and depression as a result of more isolation and fewer opportunities for social engagement Ultimately, this can impact their mental health including loneliness, depression and in extreme cases, can lead to suicide.
Lack of physical activity
While some schools were already lacking in providing adequate attention to engaging students’ physical bodies in their educational experience, this area has been particularly impacted by the shift to virtual school. Since the majority of students’ learning is taking place on computer screens, they are spending even more time sitting still as they attend hours’-long virtual class sessions with limited ability to get up and move. Some schools have responded to this by limiting class sessions to less than an hour or ensuring that students still have their P.E. and breaks for recess where they can go out and play or engage in some physical activity. Other teachers are incorporating “brain breaks” and opportunities to get up and move around similar to what they would do in the classroom. However, this is not an easy task while attempting to manage a class full of students and navigate/prevent potential technical difficulties. The decrease in physical movement, coupled with the increase in anxiety and depression can lead to other activities such as watching more television/movies and playing video games or other indoor activities that can further increase feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms. As students are becoming more sedentary in this environment, weight gain/obesity poses a concern. This is also an issue that is impacting teachers as well as they not only attend the class sessions with students but must attend most meetings and planning sessions on the computer as well.
In short, per Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion:
While access to education is a constitutional right, access to adequate and effective education that caters to students’ needs is limited for groups who have been marginalized. To provide equitable access to both adequate opportunities to attain an education and for health care for all, there must be a restructuring of both systems (pg. 57).
This need for restructuring must be picked up again, once schools fully open up. In the meantime, the concerns mentioned above must be considered and rectified now, to ensure that children do not experience long-term impact. Many in the sector are focusing on these learning losses, in terms of the intersection of education and health, as there is a myriad of issues to explore and reform.
About the Authors
Patti R. Rose, MPH, Ed.D. - President and Founder, Rose Consulting
Dr. Patti Rose acquired her Master's Degree (MPH) in Health Services Administration from the Yale University School of Public Health followed by her Doctorate (Ed.D.) in Health Education from Columbia University, Teachers College. She is the President and Founder of Rose Consulting through which she offers speaking engagements, workshops, and consultation in the United States and abroad. She is the author of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Context, Controversies, and Solutions, Second Edition, Cultural Competency for Health Administration and Public Health and Cultural Competency for the Health Professional.
Courtney E. Rose, M.Ed, Ed.D. - Consultant, Ivy Rose Consulting
Dr. Courtney Rose acquired her Master's Degree (M.Ed.) in Human Development & Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education followed by her Doctorate (Ed.D.) in Curriculum & Teaching from Columbia University Teachers College. She is a former 5th-grade teacher and is currently a Visiting Teaching Professor at Florida International University as well as a Consultant for Rose Consulting.