Guest Post: What Is The Case For Virtual Schooling?

News that children in England were to switch to online schooling as part of the country’s third national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 global pandemic was met with widespread support in the British press. Doctors, public health specialists, and even teaching unions similarly applauded the decision. (Nurseries, which have remained open during the latest lockdown period, have also been put under heavy pressure to close.)
This argument, however, is not convincing. For one thing – as already noted – it is not at all clear that forcing students to study online is beneficial for students’ health, all things considered: although it may indeed be true that the risk of students dying or suffering from Covid-19 might increase as a result of them attending in-person school, the risk of children suffering (or even dying prematurely) from mental or physical ailments due to their attending virtual school is also increased. Of course, it may in turn be argued that the increase in death or suffering from Covid-19 as a result of attending in-person school is (or would be) significantly greater than the corresponding increase in death or suffering resulting from attending virtual school – but this is an empirical claim for which, at present, there is a significant amount of countervailing evidence.
As a physician, mother, daughter of a schoolteacher and former city health commissioner who oversaw schools, I know that in-person schooling is crucial for children’s cognitive and emotional development. But loss of learning isn’t the same as loss of life, and we cannot put the burden of society’s failures on the people who work in schools.
The justification for the suspension of in-person schooling during this pandemic, however, is far from obvious. Indeed, there are at least two prima facie plausible reasons for scepticism. Firstly, children are far less susceptible to serious infection or death from Covid-19 than adults are. (While the precise figures are open to dispute, the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge has estimated that the infection-fatality rate for 5-14 year-olds in England is 0.0013% – which is roughly 24 times smaller than the infection fatality rate for 25-44 year-olds, and approximately 9000 times smaller than the infection-fatality rate for 75+ year-olds.) Secondly, virtual schooling – in addition to being a poor substitute for in-person schooling – is widely recognized to be a key contributing factor in students’ increased feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety during the pandemic, and has been similarly linked to many physical paediatric disorders such as juvenile hypertension and obesity.
In addition, even if one accepts such an assumption’s general moral permissibility, there surely must be limits to how much suffering children must be expected to tolerate so as to lessen the amount of harm which adults would otherwise incur. (To take an extreme hypothetical example: no one would surely regard it permissible to torture every child in the U.K. to mildly reduce the pain suffered by one adult.) Concerningly, however, public discussions of what these limits are, and under what conditions they could be said to be breached, are simply not being had. Rather, it seems, members of the public often simply assume that the harm caused to children is commensurate with (or, indeed, significantly less than) the harm that otherwise would be endured by adults. Given the societal and moral stakes at play here – as well as the very real suffering currently being endured by children in England and elsewhere around the world – it is an assumption which, at the very least, deserves significantly more scrutiny, and explicit justification, than it is receiving at the present time. We surely owe children that much.
There is, however, a second – and arguably much more popular – way of arguing for students’ attending virtual school. This argument does not appeal to the harm that Covid-19 causes to children. Rather, it typically admits that, on balance, virtual schooling is in fact harmful to children. Nevertheless, it advocates for virtual schooling on the basis that it is not designed to protect children, but rather to protect adults (esp. teachers and students’ parents) who are, as a whole, more at risk of serious complication or death from Covid-19 than children are. As Leana Wen of the Washington Post put it:
Occasionally, this question is answered by claiming that any additional risk of suffering or death to students is unacceptable. Thus, the argument goes, because Covid-19 increases such a risk, students should be required to study online.
This argument is clearly a radical one: nowhere, to my knowledge, have modern human societies ever consciously undertaken, and indeed repeatedly argued for, actions which collectively harm children precisely in order to mitigate any harm caused to adults. (The case of climate change is not a counter instance: although it is true that adults are almost exclusively responsible for causing global warming, and such warming arguably harms, or will harm, today’s children more than it harms or will harm today’s adults, it is not the case that adults generally argue for continuing to pollute precisely because doing so limits any harm caused to themselves.)
In other words – according to this argument – we know that, relative to in-person schooling, virtual schooling is harmful to students. However, we deem this harm to be acceptable because of the otherwise greater relative harm to adults that would be inflicted were children to attend in-person school. We are, in short, harming children in order to reduce the harm caused to adults.
In other words, it seems that: (i) children are not in serious danger of being (directly) harmed by Covid-19; and (ii) children are in very real danger of being harmed by online schooling. Why, then, should students be required to attend virtual school?
A second and more serious problem with this argument, however, is that, were it to be consistently applied, it would appear to entail, absurdly, that schooling should always be “virtual”. After all, simply walking or driving to school entails risks, for instance, of being physically harmed or even killed (e.g., in a motor accident). However, it seems that we (tacitly) accept such risks because they are outweighed by the benefits that in-person schooling provides. Why, then, should not similar reasoning apply to the case of Covid-19? Why shouldn’t the benefits associated with attending in-person school be allowed to outweigh its concomitant risks and harms, including the risk of contracting Covid-19?
The argument itself is also extremely dubious. For one thing, it may legitimately be questioned whether it is ever acceptable to knowingly inflict harm upon a (minority) sector of the population so as to attempt to mitigate any harm caused to a (majority) demographic. Furthermore, even if one accepts that such an action may in certain circumstances be legitimate, one may nevertheless regard such actions as illegitimate when the demographic in question consists largely of children or, more generally, politically disenfranchised individuals, who have no political leverage over the issue of whether they should be so harmed.
Written by Thomas Moller-Nielsen