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Peter’s Take: Parents Need to Stand Up for Safe Use of Schools’ Digital Devices

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Long before COVID-19 and during COVID-19, I have been critical of APS’s excessive reliance on digital devices.

I’ve cited many scientific studies documenting the damage that excessive screen use causes to students who are suffering the health impacts emotionally and physically, showing that overuse of digital devices also affects students’ educational growth and development. Even though some APS students are doing well in a virtual environment, COVID-19 has aggravated and increased substantially these previously documented harms.

Although these risks to students’ health pre-existed COVID-19, the increased impacts from remote learning are now alarming health professionals.

Health impacts from remote learning

Children are worse off than before COVID-19 as their screen use is constant. Sedentary for most of their day, many don’t have the opportunity to learn and play outdoors. The screen’s blue light may be impacting healthy sleep patterns- creating serious secondary impacts from sleep disruptions and associated mental health issues.

Childhood myopia was well established as a worldwide epidemic long before the lockdown. But the damage done by constant screen use and lack of outdoor play in the last year has created a “crisis” according to the American Optometric Association, which just held an ’emergency summit’ to address the growing health threat to children’s eye health and vision associated directly with increased screen use among children.

Children’s eyes are more vulnerable to the impacts of digital devices because they are still growing and haven’t developed the same kind of light protection that adults have, so they are more likely to be impacted by the blue light coming from the schools’ digital devices they are required to use.

That blue light suppresses the production of melatonin, which is needed to fall asleep.  As a result, children are now suffering more than ever from sleep disruptions, which impacts nearly every other aspect of a child’s health, from the ability to focus and perform in school, to the development of mental health issues.

Childhood obesity has long been rampant, but now is sky-rocketing due to increased sedentary time imposed by relentless screen use.

APS parents should insist on digital device safety in school

Fortunately, a new Virginia law addresses the health risks associated with the schools’ digital devices. The new law requires “the Department of Education (VDOE), in collaboration with the Department of Health and medical professional societies, to develop and distribute health and safety best practice guidelines for the use of digital devices in public schools no later than the 2021-2022 school year.”

On March 29, VDOE posted a draft of the mandated Health and Safety Digital Device guidelines for public comment, asking the public to weigh in regarding classroom digital device safety before April 28th.

Every APS parent should seize this opportunity to comment to VDOE and insist to their child’s principal that these guidelines be followed.

APS’s over-reliance on digital devices and virtual learning, particularly in K-5, was already a serious problem pre-COVID-19. Although APS labelled this “personalized learning,” it detracted from the genuine, in-person classroom interactions which are vital for the development of young children.

With their experiences observing virtual learning at home over the past year, many more Arlington parents now have a first-hand look at the overuse and adverse impact of the schools’ devices on their children’s health and well-being.

These guidelines address digital device use for different age ranges and developmental levels, the amount of time spent on digital devices in the classroom and at home, appropriate break frequency from the use of digital devices, ergonomics and posture.

Conclusion

VDOE’s proposed new Digital Health and Safety Guidelines provide Arlington parents with a timely and critically-important opportunity to weigh in using the VDOE comment form. Parents should do that.

Parents also should contact their school’s principal to insist that APS needs to do much more to “think outside the screen.” Offer more outdoor classroom spaces, manipulatives, math workbooks, journals, grow gardens.

Simply turning off the devices, and going outside to play dramatically improves a child’s visionweight, and mental health. Free of charge. Arlington children need more time outside and less time on screens.

Thanks to Cindy Eckard for her help with this column.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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