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Short sighted and lacking in sleep - what are the realities of remote learning?

Our Head of Senior School, Mrs Rogerson, explores the effects of remote learning...

Last week we learned that schools will not open to pupils other than the children of critical workers before 8 March 2021, so our current period of remote learning will continue for at least the rest of this half term and much of next. While I feel very fortunate that we have been able to continue providing a full curriculum to our pupils in contrast to the stories we have seen about pupils falling far behind during the COVID crisis it is natural to wonder what the impacts of remote learning will be on this group of children as they navigate their second period of internet based lessons in their school career.

As a parent and educator my chief concerns are around socialisation and screen time -is the pandemic going to lead us to a generation of monosyllabic children happier clicking through cyberspace in a darkened room than enjoying a family day out? The parent of any teenager will tell you that this threat feels very real at the best of times! On top of worries about developing our children’s naturally existing troglodyte tendencies we might worry about their eyesight deteriorating or  sleep suffering - both of which have been suggested as possible outcomes of children being largely confined to their homes, and easily fit our ideas of what an increase in screen time might produce. 

However the story is far from that simple, as Hill House parent, Chief Executive and Founder of The Sleep Charity Vicky Dawson notes in a recent Guardian Article, “We have seen a significant increase in children experiencing sleep problems since the pandemic. There would appear to be a number of factors around this, with increased screen time being one. In addition to this, there are reduced exercise opportunities, increased anxiety and lack of routine”. So, it seems that we cannot reject the notion that screen time can impact on pupils’ sleep but we can certainly hope that by continuing to provide regular Games and PE lessons to encourage a regular exercise routine, ensuring that pupils have daily contact with the friendly and reassuring face of their tutor and maintaining the familiar daily routine of lessons will help mitigate these issues. What of the worries over children’s eyesight? Even here the culprit is not quite as clear cut as it would seem at first glance - in fact time spent outside seems to be a very important factor in eyesight development, so if we do see eyesight issues in children after lockdown it may be that a lack of natural light is partially to blame and we can mitigate against this by heading outside as often as the weather allows.

In fact experts suggest that screen time per se is not an issue instead the quality of interaction is key. Paul Howard-Jones, a professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol and the man behind The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds says  “The real issue is what’s being done on the screen,” he suggests that the chief risk of screen time is the passive watching of videos or completing of worksheets while real time interactions with peers and teachers can ensure that children have the best possible chance to make progress and continue their social development. In just the last week I have been privileged to join children in a science lesson busily extracting the DNA from kiwi fruit and onions in the comfort of their own kitchens, lead a debating preparation session with all pupils working in breakout rooms (before two of our pupils went on to compete in the Oxford School’s Competition reaching the finals to be held later in the year), seen participants in our new Friday 6 programme working on mindful colouring and making pancakes as well as enjoying visiting form periods full of photo challenges and competitions.

Our school council is feeding back to us each week on remote learning, and it’s been lovely to hear how much they value spending time with their form tutors and getting to chat with their friends online. They have also made some very sensible suggestions about homework that our Deputy Head Girl is feeding back to teachers. 

Increased screen time is with us for the time being, but with a range of activities on offer in each pupils’ timetable and more to come as pupils and staff become ever more skilled we can perhaps lay that worry aside for the time being and simply look forward to all being back in school as soon as possible.