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RPS to Shorten School Day After Parents Raise Health Concerns

William Fox elementary school in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond schools will be shortening their virtual school days, according to a presentation the district’s superintendent is set to give during Monday’s school board meeting.

The board is proposing that live, online instruction for students in kindergarten through second grade end at noon, and at 1:30 pm for students in third through fifth grade. Students in all school grades will now also have lunch around the same time.  

Previously, school days for Richmond students ran between five and seven hours, depending on the age group. According to the district’s website, Richmond teachers are encouraged to incorporate breaks and offline activities and assignments during their classes.

Before the change, some parents praised the district’s efforts, like Sarah Blom, whose fourth grade son tells her the length of the virtual school day “feels like school.”

“It has been a fairly smooth transition for us with the virtual learning schedule at our school,” Blom told VPM. “We have had a few hiccups but his school and his teacher have been flexible and accommodating.”

Others issued calls for the district to reduce students’ time on camera last week. Heather Mitchell said she preferred the Wednesday half days, which she feels is a more appropriate length of time for the virtual school day.

“Both children are acting out behaviorally, and my sixth grader cries his eyes are tired by 2 p.m.,” Mitchell said.

Parents Sounded the Alarm

Dozens of Richmond parents voiced health concerns during last week’s school board meeting -- the first since virtual classes began. Some were worried more time in front of a computer screen could have negative impacts on their children’s vision, attention span and overall mental health.

“Their concerns are valid, and there are certain things that parents can do to decrease the risk of eyestrain for their children during this virtual learning time,” said Evan Silverstein, an ophthalmologist with the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Silverstein recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Taking 20 second breaks from the screen every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. He says it’s best for students to sit between 18 to 24 inches away from their computer, and maintain good posture to avoid back pain.

On the subject of blue light blocking glasses, Silverstein said there is “currently no good science that this decreases eyestrain.” He said decreased time outdoors is “the main culprit” in increases in nearsightedness, and recommends that students go on walks and exercise. 

“I really encourage them not to pick up another device, not to stay on the computer during breaks, but to actually take a physical and visual break from screens,” Silverstein said.

Bela Sood, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says it’s normal for some young students to show signs of irritability, fatigue and trouble focusing as they adapt to virtual learning. 

“They find that the method of instruction is so alien to them that they just can’t go along with it, and so that’s a great distractibility factor that can lead to feelings of social disdain, of feeling depressed, of feeling like you can’t really catch up,” she said.

Sood says what works for one student may not work for another, and encourages parents to look for signs of whether their child is struggling, and tailor their virtual learning experience based on their learning style and personality. 

“Children usually have a fairly diverse day: You have school, then you have play, then you have family time and so on. But here, there is that uniform factor of really not having any other situation within the child’s day,” Sood said. “That can definitely have an impact.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization have recommended in previous years a daily two-hour limit on “sedentary screen time” for school children. Sood and Silverstein both endorse those recommendations, but SIlverstein says there can be some leniency given the risks of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That is pre-COVID recommendations,” Silvertstein says. “In an ideal situation, yes, we should limit the amount of screen time on children. But at the same time, if this is the only way that they can get the education that they need safely, then we have to modify our ideal recommendations.”

As of Friday, 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at RPS facilities.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article described one proposal as if it was the final schedule. Instead, it is a proposed schedule. The article has been updated.

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