By Graham Sayer, Executive Head at Somerset College
The effects of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions have hugely disrupted life as we knew it. Many parents concerned about the quality of education being impacted by on-again, off-again public schooling, have started looking at online options for their children.
The challenges are indeed enormous but perhaps what is missing from the online vs on-campus schooling debate is the case for in-person education.
The statistics available are certainly cause for concern. According to the Department of Basic Education, the overall national picture is that 54% to 60% of contact time was lost in 2020, overall; some public school learners are 75% to 100% behind where they would otherwise have been; with rotational learning in 2021, learning loss could rise to almost 200%; an estimated half a million more children have dropped out of school since the pandemic began.
Even in well-resourced schools, learning outcomes vary widely depending on the approach taken. Those that incorporate peer interaction or small group activities into synchronous online courses supported by regular, valid assessment and feedback, see the best results.
These well-resourced schools have seen an increase in digital proficiency among teachers and students. The utilisation of online educational resources and tools has enriched the educational mix and resource pool, and will likely be an enduring state.
What are the benefits of online schooling?
Not all public or private schools are well resourced, and the pandemic has hugely exacerbated educational inequality in South Africa, so innovative online offerings that present hope of improved educational outcomes for students in dysfunctional schools, or in schools struggling with curriculum recovery, are to be welcomed.
Where the online offering is highly resourced, with an optimal mix of synchronous and asynchronous work, greater flexibility can be offered with regards to the daily schedule and time spent on schoolwork versus free time/ time for other pursuits (such as elite-level sport commitments, for example), and a wider variety of subjects may be offered.
A good online schooling programme will offer a degree of connection and access to academic resources that suits students with conditions or personal circumstances where in-person attendance is not an ideal solution.
What challenges have arisen for students?
As the long-term consequences are not yet known, it is difficult to say which age group has been worst affected. The answer also depends very much on socio-economic and home-life conditions, but social isolation has emerged as a strong predictor of poor physical, as well as mental, health.
While all children need peer interaction for healthy development, adolescents are perhaps most acutely in need of this. Aside from the academic challenges mentioned above, rates of depression and anxiety amongst adolescents surged as a result of their being denied daily contact with their peers.
Unfortunately video calls (Zoom, Google Meet, MS Teams, etc) are a poor substitute for in-person interactions because the crucial non-verbal cues (tone and pitch of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, and body language) upon which we rely for connection and accurate comprehension are compromised. This means that our brains, especially the occipital and temporal lobes, which make up about 40% of the brain, must work harder to process information, which can lead to fatigue and states of stress that detract from cognition and wellbeing 7, 8.
Optimal time for a Zoom meeting or class is 20-30 minutes, but class length routinely exceeds this in online school offerings.
Seeing oneself on the screen often throughout the day / continuously leads to stress, especially in teenagers who are often preoccupied with self-image.
Social and emotional learning (the process whereby students learn to process their emotions and express them constructively to their peers) is curtailed by online learning. Student academic outcomes are also hurt by online schooling although the negative impact can be reduced by incorporating peer interaction or small group activities into synchronous online courses.
Online learning removes the need for movement between classes, the choice of activities in a school environment, social interaction and check-ins with peers that give teenagers the boost of dopamine they need to maintain wellness. 
Lower levels of sunlight are associated with impaired cognitive states and students studying remotely from home are likely to receive significantly less sunlight than those visiting campus.
There is evidence of a link between visual impairment and diagnosed ADHD which is a significant barrier to learning and academic progress and wellbeing.For every 20 minutes spent on a device, a child needs a short break, to adjust their gaze and to blink in order to lubricate their eyes to combat eye damage and burnout. Online learning programmes generally do not incorporate a helpful response to this need and it is mostly not possible for a parent to monitor and address. 
It is also difficult for a student to filter background noise and focus on the teacher’s voice when all student contributions are as loud as each other, as they are received through the computer’s microphone. This leads to overstimulation and feelings of frustration or fatigue.
The impact of online schooling on family dynamics varies but in some families has proved destructive and unsettling. 21 Many ECD and Junior Primary households struggled because of the increased demand on parents to facilitate schooling at this age.
What are the benefits of on-campus schooling for students?
School is one of the critical environments where learners can develop a sense of belonging. The desire to connect seems to hit a peak in the teen years, and a great deal of research around this has shown that support from and spending time with friends can help reduce depression and anxiety,.
Further research has underscored the importance of the supportive roles played by teachers and non-family adults in the lives of teens. The proximity that results from listening to and being with early adolescents in day-to-day activities, and from comprehending their issues, presents an opportunity to become credible, trusted and legitimate in the eyes of teens.
Direct person-to-person contact triggers parts of our nervous system that release a “cocktail” of neurotransmitters tasked with regulating our response to stress and anxiety which builds resilience to uncertainty and challenges.
Without a pre-existing in-person foundation to the student-teacher relationship, engagement and accountability are made far more difficult.
Movement, autonomy and connection are critical during the school day for maintaining wellness. This allows for the release of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that every teen needs to feel good, focus and maintain engagement with their studies.
Sunlight is essential for good health and to signal to the teen brain that it’s time for the school day to begin.
Communication, collaborative problem-solving, resilience; cultural awareness and expression; understanding local, global and intercultural issues; taking initiative in order to influence others (leadership) – all require empathy and tolerance, which is best developed in person.  
On-campus schooling means that children are protected from too much screen time which is linked to stress in the visual system and visual impairments (which can become permanent).
Identity construction is grounded in the actual process of socialisation. This process is founded upon the ties that a child or adolescent manages to forge with peers, teachers and non-family adults as well as centres of activity in his or her environment. 
What does this all mean for the future of schooling in South Africa?
With fewer than 3-million of the more than 13-million learners in basic education operating in properly functioning schools, pre-Covid, there is a concern that decision makers will throw most of their budgets at attractively packaged online offerings. The real, long-term good of the system would be better served by investing in developing a world-class teacher cohort for in-person schools that are rooted in and integrally serving their communities.
It may be that in the short term, curriculum recovery at schools in crisis could be supported by a sustainable online offering, however, this presupposes the presence of the hardware, software, data and training required to facilitate access, and should not happen at the expense of teacher recruitment, training and development.
The small group of students whose needs are better met through online schooling, will benefit as long as they have access to the necessary infrastructure.
Most well-resourced, in-person schools will augment their offerings with carefully chosen online tools and thus improve the teaching and learning experience without losing the benefits of in-person interaction.
Predominantly or exclusively online schools will have their work cut out to ameliorate or mitigate the risks and disadvantages inherent in this model, if they even accept that these are their responsibility.
Advice for parents considering the two options for their children?
Carefully consider your child’s psychosocial and physical development needs in the context of the available research and relative to the offerings you are considering.
If online offerings are promising to augment themselves with in-person experiences (sports, clubs and the like), consider that they are conceding the critical importance of in-person interaction and make sure that you are comfortable that they can deliver to the standard that more traditional schooling can.
The mitigants and measures required for online offerings to make up for the loss of in-person interaction, sports, clubs, break times and social events are so extensive as to be prohibitive, especially when their efficacy is theoretical and untested.
The pandemic experience has confirmed, for most, the benefits of in-person schooling.
Although there has been a mushrooming of online offerings, their quality varies widely, and globally, most schools are returning to in-person education as soon as they can do so safely and within regulations.
South Africa should be investing primarily in improving the quality of the teacher cohort. Online resources and platforms should be used for augmentation purposes, not as replacements for in-person schooling.
Founded in 1997, Somerset College is an independent, co-educational school situated on a beautiful estate in the Winelands of the Western Cape. The College offers schooling from Grade 000 (age 4) to Matric, as well as Cambridge A-levels and IEB. Boarding is available for students in the Senior School.
Somerset College offers a world-class education that best prepares students for tertiary education. The school prides itself on an ethos that allows for each student to embark on their own journey of personal growth and development of individual excellence. They aim to equip their students – through wider innovative educational initiatives, social programmes, entrepreneurial projects and their project-based ESTEAM programme (Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) – to be global citizens who keep up with world events and take their learning with them into the real world.