The Silver Lining of Virtual Learning During COVID-19

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Children are heading back to school this month in many states across the nation. In most school districts, this is the first time that kids have been inside school buildings since COVID-19 spread across the U.S. in March.

School certainly looks different this year. Some districts are starting off with a virtual-only option with kids participating in online learning from home. Other districts are offering a hybrid education model, where smaller classes of children – donning masks and keeping their distance – meet in person for some days, and learn from home on other days.

This is a far cry from the most ideal circumstances for kids and educators. Virtual learning is a real challenge for younger kids, who learn through social connection; many kids with learning disabilities; and kids who don’t have reliable access to technology or nutrition at home. Going to school in person is a scary proposition for students or family members who have health risks. The media is ablaze with policy makers and parents reciting, “There are no good options.” And, for the most part, that’s true. But the evidence does provide a silver lining for both the virtual and hybrid learning models – at least for teenagers.

Educators have long studied the most ideal times of day for kids to learn. Evidence demonstrates that when young people begin puberty, their biological clocks shift; they typically become sleepy later—as late as 11 p.m.—and need to sleep later in the morning to get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.

A large body of evidence documents ill effects on youth who don’t get enough sleep. Young people who regularly get less than eight hours of sleep per night are more likely to be overweight, suffer from depression, engage in risky behaviors (such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using drugs) and perform poorly in school.

In 2017, the Campbell Collaboration published a comprehensive review that found starting school later in the day is beneficial for teens. The review complied evidence from 17 studies with nearly 300,000 participants in total. It found that starting school later in the morning led teens to get more sleep. Students in the study who started school later performed better academically and socially. ‘

Virtual schooling provides a unique opportunity to align teens’ school schedules with their biological clocks. Especially if educators use asynchronous learning – where teachers record educational content for students to engage with on their own schedules – teenagers should be able to do their schoolwork at times of day that work best for them.

The take-home message: While virtual learning is certainly not ideal for many kids, it does offer the silver lining of flexible sleep schedules for older students.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.

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