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Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer currently working on a book about child care.

As students prepare to return to school this fall, the focus has necessarily been on their health. School boards have been cranking out policies on masks, cohorts and ventilation, while beefing up their budgets for mental-health supports amidst serious concerns about students’ emotional well-being. But there’s a problem. Our education system is now hooked on the things that pose the greatest threat to students’ mental health: screens.

The pandemic has proven a boon for digital technology in education. When in-person classes were happening, tablets, laptops and smartphones enabled teachers to run almost-paperless classrooms, allaying fears of fomite transmission. When schools closed, those same devices delivered remote schooling to kids isolating at home.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. But when pandemic restrictions are lifted and kids’ lives return to something more normal, we must ensure that those measures don’t come to define the new normal. The pandemic must not become disaster capitalism’s moment in the classroom, when we are hoodwinked into believing that education is best delivered through machines.

Digital technologies, ascendant in classrooms since the early 2000s, are generally considered a force for good. Parents have bought the line that these indispensable tools of the globalized world and knowledge economy will be vital to our children’s futures. Among educators, the overriding concern has been about equity, as a digital divide yawned between schools in remote, underserved communities and those with access to high-speed internet and deep-pocketed parent councils.

But while there’s no question that the internet and the devices used to access it can open up worlds of possibilities to students, there’s also no question that they are no substitute for a good teacher. In fact, digital technologies are only useful in the hands of a good teacher – one who understands their potential, and their limits.

And limits there are. Any honest middle school teacher or student can tell you about the things that go wrong: the vile internet content that slips through school board filters, the persistent temptation of mobile phones buzzing away in knapsacks, the erratic WiFi connection that jettisons the online teaching plan, the odd student who figures out how to hack Google Forms and find the answers online, the not-so-odd student who couldn’t care less about Google Forms and chooses to play Roblox instead.

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Then there’s the collateral damage of overzealous adoption of technology in the classroom: the students who never really learn how to hold a pen, or how to spell without autocorrect; the pedagogically worthless online schlock that gets served up as teaching materials; the families without extra devices kicking around at home who are left in the dust.

While education systems grapple with these challenges, fiscally conservative political forces forge ahead to the next frontier: remote learning. In the prepandemic mists of time, Ontario Premier Doug Ford raised much ire by announcing four mandatory e-learning classes for all high school students. The pushback was such that he reduced the requirement to two courses.

But a year later, fresh into the first pandemic lockdown, e-learning became reality for all students across the province. And so it remains this September, as an alternate to in-classroom learning.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government was all too happy to adopt the practice. Last May, before Education Minister Stephen Lecce could tell parents whether schools would reopen during that school year, he was already announcing that remote learning would be offered in the next one. “We’ve committed ourselves to consulting on providing that choice beyond this year,” he told a news conference at the time. “What we heard in the consultation absolutely clearly is that parents want that choice for this September because we are unsure of where this pandemic will take us.”

Equally uncertain is where this sudden integration of remote learning and enhanced reliance on technology in the classroom will take us. If last year was any indication, the direction is not positive. In a briefing published in June, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table estimated that, as a result of remote learning, students had fallen two to three months behind in their academic achievement, with the most acute learning loss occurring among vulnerable populations that could least afford it.

This year’s purported “solution” of hybrid learning – in which teachers simultaneously instruct students in the classroom and online – does not bode well. Teachers who attempted the model last year have made it quite clear that it doesn’t work. As a teacher friend explained to me, the default format for hybrid teaching is static and monologic: You stand on camera at the front of the classroom and deliver a lecture. As soon as there are questions or interjections – when the real learning starts – things fall apart. The teacher has to choose between the front row student whose hand is raised and the one at home whose keyboard is stuck on caps lock. Meanwhile everyone else tunes out.

When remote learning began, my sons’ computer screens filled with matrices of their classmates’ faces, looking on with some combination of curiosity and resignation. As the weeks wore on, those faces turned to silent memes or initials, as their peers turned off their cameras and slunk away. Teachers could be heard trying to entice them back. By the end of the year, three or four faces remained floating on the screen, like survivors of some weird shipwreck.

Where did the others defect to? Likely other screens. Deprived of school, organized activities and the freedom to interact in person, many kids have spent most of the pandemic on devices. Researchers at Western University estimate that school-aged children’s screen time doubled during lockdowns, from an average of 2.6 to 5.8 hours a day – not including online school. My children, aged 11 and 13, have some friends who reported spending more than 12 hours daily on their screens last spring.

Policy makers and educators should keep this excess of screen time in mind as they boot up their devices this fall. Students don’t need more of the same. COVID-19 has turned the standard argument in favour of technology in the classroom on its head.

“What is wrong with making sure that our students, at minimum, once a year, embrace technology for good?” then-education minister Lisa Thompson asked the Ontario legislature in March, 2019, defending her government’s introduction of mandatory e-learning.

Well, students have spent most of the past 18 months embracing technology – or rather, it has embraced them. Now our education system must work to free them from that embrace. It must engage with students in person, not as thumbnails on a screen, and remind them of the rewards of being together and actually learning.

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