On the morning of September 28, throngs of lower school students congregated on-campus to see each other and do activities together for the first time since GDS officially closed its doors to students last March. That afternoon, another group did the same, and over the course of the week nearly every student from pre-K through 4th grade gathered together on campus. Although this partial reopening might be slightly risky, it is absolutely essential the mental health and emotional development of younger students and GDS is making the right decision in having students back together on campus again.
There is a vast body of research which suggests that interacting together in person is absolutely essential for the mental health and social development of children under ten years old. Through infancy and early childhood, interaction with other children—through both playing together and simply doing separate activities near each other—allows growing children to learn how to interact in social settings and positively improves their state of mind and general happiness. Social interaction is also associated with language development, good self esteem and increased creativity and imagination.
Unfortunately, as many early-childhood educators are discovering, this effect cannot be fully replicated over Zoom or other video chatting services for a variety of reasons, primarily that video chatting requires increased motivation, technological sophistication and greater attention to social cues, all of which may be difficult for a young child to master.
Simply put, in-person interaction is much more useful to children. 3rd grade teacher Anthony Belber can attest to this fact. His students met together on the afternoon of Thursday the October 1st, and he mentioned that one of his students was shocked by how his classmates looked in person. “One boy said, ‘everybody was a lot taller than I expected,” he recounted.
Admittedly, there are risks associated with returning students to the campus. In fact, by late August, even before GDS returned to school over zoom, over 850 schools nationwide had started in person and then almost immediately been forced to send their students home after outbreaks happened within the school.
Luckily, D.C. has been relatively good at controlling the spread of the virus within the region, and the largest superspreader event to take place recently was not a school reopening or ill-advised party, but instead the White House event celebrating Amy Coney Barret’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As long as GDS remains cautious and follows the CDC guidelines on when to reopen and how many people are acceptable in a single place, it should be able to avoid any disasters or outbreaks.
Additionally, opening up more would be following in the footsteps of some other schools in the region, which have reopened their doors without a hitch. Seven out of Arlington’s eight private schools have successfully made a limited in-person return and the nearby National Cathedral School offers a blended-learning model. It’s not just private schools, either. DCPS also plans to return students in pre-K through 5th grade as well as students with known “opportunity gaps” to in-person education starting on November 9, and hopes to eventually be able to have 75% of all elementary school students back in class.
GDS’ in-person gatherings of their youngest students are here to stay. These gatherings, although they may carry with them some small risks, are generally beneficial to the overall well-being of the children enrolled in the lower school. In spite of all concerns, these gatherings are what is best for GDS students, and it is my sincere hope that they will continue into the future. In Belber’s own words, “it really is deeply satisfying to just see someone in person after all these months away from one another.”