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Blog Sep 21, 2021

What If the Benefits of In-Person Learning Outweigh the Risks?

By Pamela Cantor, M.D.

We’ve heard a lot about instructional loss, but what if I told you there’s an even greater risk to children? A risk at the level of their biology, their well-being, and their learning. 

And what if I told you there’s also a medicine for this that is both high benefit and low risk?

Learning is fundamentally a relational enterprise — it is even a biological enterprise. The biology of the human relationship is the essential foundation for a healthy childhood. Here is the scientific truth: Relationships release an army of helpful and powerful hormones, including the powerful hormone oxytocin. 

Oxytocin is such a powerful hormone that it not only buffers the effects of stress, but also builds resilience to future stress, including the ongoing stress children will face due the pandemic and its aftermath. 

Oxytocin helps ignite learning, unlock motivation and wires the brain by connecting brain structures so that we can learn to build complex skills like reading, riding a bike, or solving a hard math problem.

We can’t live well or learn well without this hormone. And we can’t release this hormone without strong, consistent positive relationships. It’s also really hard for teachers to develop those relationships with students without in-person interactions. So we have a big risk-benefit problem on our hands with COVID. 

I joined AFT President Randi Weingarten and four education experts on a virtual town hall who made just this point. We do have to make physical learning spaces safer, and we have to prioritize in-person learning. This important conversation with me, Randi, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, pediatrician Dr. Samira Brown, AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, and National PTA Executive Director Nathan Monell came at a critical time, with children returning to physical school buildings after many months away. As Dom Domenech, the executive director of AASA—The School Superintendents Association, said: teachers should ask their students how they and their families are doing instead of starting class by asking students to open their math books.

We know that relationships are at the heart of learning. Now we need to design an education system that is relationship-rich, holistic, rigorous, supportive, and profoundly engaging of students — a whole-child system.

Recently, the Learning Policy Institute, the Forum for Youth Investment, and the organization I founded, Turnaround for Children, published the Design Principles for Schools — a playbook that will help educators do just that. It includes resources to help educators develop the whole child, meaning their each child’s well-being, social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and of course, academic competencies. That’s what we mean when we say “whole child.”

The five principles of whole-child design are positive developmental relationships; safety and belonging; rich engaging learning experiences; intentional development of the skills, habits and mindsets that all successful learners have; and integrated student supports. When schools are designed using these five principles, we solve for relationships, safety, AND learning. 

During the town hall, I was particularly struck by what Dr. Vivek Murthy said about the mental health impacts of the pandemic that will be felt for years to come. He said we need to prepare and commit to addressing those long-term impacts, explaining “it’s about getting children back in the classroom, but it’s also about helping them heal.”

We can mitigate many of these risks by prioritizing in-person learning that develops the whole-child and safety — not choosing between them.

Everything in life is a risk-benefit decision. In this case, the risks are multifaceted: the risk of not being in school, the risk of being in school where appropriate safety precautions aren’t being taken seriously enough, and the risk of being in schools that don’t take whole-child design seriously enough.

We can reduce the risk and get the benefit by making our schools and learning settings whole-child settings, by keeping ourselves and others safe through masks, vaccines, ventilation, hand-washing, and using every other tool we have in the name of safety. 

We likely still won’t drive the risk to zero, but the benefit for us all, is seeing our children fully leaning into their childhoods, into their learning and into the futures they choose.