COVID-19 has affected America—and the world—in many ways, especially when it comes to students and schools. The pandemic has negatively affected students’ mental health, academics, and relationships with their peers, teachers, and family members, which is why schools need to safely maintain in-person learning.

Declining Mental Health and Academic Performance

Many students experienced extra stress and anxiety due to the uncertainty that followed the start of the pandemic, much of which came from wondering how schools would function amidst these new challenges. A survey conducted by Active Minds on COVID-19’s impact on college student mental health in April 2020 found that 91% of college students experienced an increase in stress and anxiety. K–12 students have also been affected, and students in general have experienced more depression due to quarantine isolation. According to Michael Raster, a psychiatrist at ProHealth Medical Group in Waukesha, WI, “People who really miss being around others and who may not have outlets or adequate support systems can become lonely. They can become depressed.” Loneliness is a factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicide, and COVID-19 quarantining has resulted in increased feelings of loneliness. In that survey, Active Minds also revealed that 75% of students of all ages across the United States agree that their mental health worsened during the pandemic.

Academic learning has also been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Virtual learning has simply not been as effective as in-person learning. When school buildings closed during the pandemic, many schools used a video communications app that allowed teachers to give live, virtual lessons. However, these apps should only have been a temporary solution. Many of my peers and I believe that virtual learning went on for too long. For many students, virtual learning made it harder to concentrate on schoolwork and understand academic subjects. As a result, some standardized test scores have decreased. Across the U.S., many students in third through eighth grades take the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. According to a report from NWEA, in the fall of 2020, NWEA MAP scores in math decreased 5 to 10 percentile points compared to the previous year.

Also, during the 2020–21 school year, in both reading and math, there were larger decreases in NWEA MAP test scores for students of color and students from economically disadvantaged families compared to their more affluent peers. The learning gap ultimately widened during the pandemic. Schools are supposed to teach every student as effectively as possible, but virtual learning only hinders this effort.

Strain on Relationships

Another effect of the pandemic is the toll on students’ relationships. Some students experienced a strain on their relationships with their families as they spent more time at home. Virtual learning and quarantining did not give students a break from their families like a normal school day would. For many, constantly being around their family members led to elevated aggravation and tension.

In addition, the pandemic hurt relationships between students and teachers. Many students rely on teachers for comfort and encouragement. According to middle school teacher Jennifer Glick, an English and special education instructor at P.S./M.S. 108 School of Authors in East Harlem, NY, “[Student and teacher relationships are] a part of development. [Students] want that internal motivation, to do it for someone who really cares about their success.” Because of virtual learning, these relationships were harder to build, and students’ motivation to work hard for a teacher who cared about them decreased.

Many students also saw a negative impact on their relationships with peers, since they couldn’t see their friends in person, and remote learning made it harder to make friends. One survey administered by Forsa on behalf of Save the Children found that 76% of students missed interacting with their friends, and 85% of them were most concerned about not being able to see friends during the pandemic. These figures show how important social interaction is for children. With virtual learning, students can still engage with peers through technology, but seeing friends in person is healthier.

Ensuring That In-Person Learning Remains

The issue of why schools need to stay in person cannot be fully addressed without giving solutions for how this can be possible. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. As Zucht v. King—a Supreme Court case in 1922—ruled, a school district could constitutionally exclude unvaccinated students from attending its schools. A poll taken in September 2021 at my school, Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, IN, found that 81% of students were fine with a vaccine mandate if we could go back to in-person learning, with 63% strongly agreeing there should be a vaccine mandate. As this poll shows, many students desperately want to keep learning safely in person, even if it requires a vaccine mandate.

Schools that believe the mandate wouldn’t be what most of their students want can implement other requirements, such as mask wearing, social distancing, or contact tracing. These methods might not be as effective as vaccination mandates, but they should still allow for schools to safely maintain in-person learning.

It’s necessary for schools to keep their doors open, teach students in person, and function as normally as possible. Due to COVID-19, many students experienced mental health challenges, academic struggles, and relationship issues. Remote learning should have only been a temporary solution because of the harm it causes in the long run. Unfortunately, it has been used as a long-term solution in some places. With in-person learning, many of the issues students have experienced can be resolved, or at least improved. The well-being of our students should be our top priority, which means schools should do all they possibly can to safely maintain in-person learning.

Abigail Lotter is an eighth grader at Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, IN.