Student screen time

Learning from home means staring at computers

click to enlarge The desk of a first-grader who attends District 186. - PHOTO BY RACHEL OTWELL
Photo by Rachel Otwell
The desk of a first-grader who attends District 186.

After school abruptly went remote in March, the state board of education recommended a maximum of 90 minutes of daily "engagement" for students in kindergarten through second grade. For third through fifth graders the max was two hours and rose incrementally to 270 minutes for high schoolers.

Much has changed since then. Springfield's public school district has kept all classes online until at least Oct. 26. And now, students have five-hour-long school days, to varying degrees of success. While some parents appreciate the several hours of class as they work from home, others are stressed enough that they've considered options outside of District 186.

Casey Boatman has twins in first grade at a district school. He and his wife are nurses, both of whom work 12-hour shifts. He said his son in particular is finding it a challenge to sit through classes. The kids are six years old. "They're just sitting still, staring at things," said Boatman.

Further complicating the long periods of time staring at a screen, the tech issues can be complicated, with apps to be used while students are logged into Zoom. For their family, it's not working. "I'm going to start travel nursing ... so that we can afford private school," where students have returned to the classroom, said Boatman.

Jason Curry is an elementary teacher at Iles School. Class starts at 8:30, when the students log into Zoom. He lets them greet each other for a while, then moves into an activity that addresses social and emotional needs. The kids go into smaller groups to work on assignments. They have class times with different teachers for special subjects, including P.E. And they do some assignments with paper, though being able to review homework done that way comes with its own challenges.

"It's a lot of back and forth," Curry said, between live sessions and more independent learning. Classes end at 2. He said parents have been grateful for the amount of engagement. It's time they can focus on their own work.

His own child is in second grade and his mom helps her with classes. "Personally, I feel like it's too much screen time," he said of the current school day. "But I don't know what a solution to that would be." Curry said teachers are working harder than ever to prepare lessons and they miss seeing their students face-to-face.

Health experts warn that as the months of mitigation efforts for the pandemic go on, children's mental health could take a toll. Dr. Douglas Carlson is the medical director of St. John's Children's Hospital. He said keeping kids physically active is one key component to overall health. "When you can, get the kids off the screen, and doing some physical activity," he suggested. "The number of children suffering from anxiety and depression will go up. There's some evidence of that already," he said. Parents who notice symptoms in their kids should reach out to primary care physicians for help.

The Illinois State Board of Education sent updated guidelines for fall that now suggest a minimum of two and a half hours of "real-time" online learning for districts that chose to go remote. At the latest Springfield school board meeting, on Sept. 21, member Micah Miller questioned why classes in the city were five hours long, citing "a lot of dispute" over that amount of time.

A key question now is when those who choose to do so will be returning to the classroom. In summer, about half of students registered to go into schools on certain days under a hybrid model. It was later decided the school year would begin remotely for all, through at least the first quarter. At the recent meeting, the board approved metrics for returning. They include that the county positivity rate be at or less than 5%. The positivity rate for the county was 3.2% for the week of Sept. 13 through 19, according to the state health department.

Four metrics in all would need to be met for two weeks in a row before the hybrid model would be offered. Once those metrics are reached, teachers would need 10 days to prepare, said Supt. Jennifer Gill. Some families have already chosen to remain remote through the end of the calendar year.

Contact Rachel Otwell at

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