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Social Isolation and Online Education

“This is a lovely party," said the Bursar to a chair, "I wish I was here.”

- Terry Pratchett

It’s been over two years since the pandemic begun and at least a year since the term “New Normal” was coined.

People have lost their loved ones due to COVID-19 and its subsequent mutants. They have lost their jobs from the resultant economic slowdown or delved into poverty from the cost of accessing medical facilities.

However, amidst the hopelessness, helplessness of the agony and the desperate attempts at achieving normalcy, one section of the populace has been severely neglected.

Debates have raged over student inclusion and equity, and varying methods of imparting education and the feasibility of their implementation have been discussed as well. Yet, the necessity of social and psychological factors in offline education, where the students, especially the pre-adolescents and adolescents get to interact with their peers has been severely overlooked. Subjecting children to being locked up at home, isolated from their peers is one of the worst aspects of COVID-19.

When I look back on my school days, my most prominent memories have nothing to do with academics.

I don’t remember myself answering questions in my History classes, or solving problems during Math. What does pop up though, are the P.E. classes that took place once a week, where for an hour, I got to play volleyball with my friends. The other most significant memories are the daily periods for recess where I could spend time with my classmates.

Various research papers and journals have previously acknowledged the importance of social interaction in the adolescent phase of human development. Internet usage has increased interaction across various communities based on color, religion and other socio-economic factors.

In such an ever-changing scenario, social interaction in the academia is of increasing importance in order to facilitate understanding of inter-generational relationships and social bonds, as well as individual autonomy with respect to cultural and historical diversity and heritage.

Social identities have been known to provide meaning and direction to behavior, thereby preventing anxiety, depression, and disorderly conduct. Socialization has also been tied to empathy, one of the key necessities in the development of pro-social behavior, altruism as well as determining the socio-political identities pertaining to human rights, justice and welfare of marginalized communities.

Another aspect to consider is the case of pre-existing conditions in students of all ages. The healing potential of socialization in individuals who have suffered trauma or PTSD has been previously identified and documented.

Given their age and stage in mental development, students can significantly benefit from a support system comprising their peers and guides. Social isolation has been shown to give rise to loneliness. Amongst the various negative effects loneliness can cause even in individuals not suffering from a psychological disease, cardiovascular and sleep dysfunction are particularly notable, since these diseases can lead to several complexities - both mental and physical.

Probably the most significant aspects to consider is tied to the students of lower ages and marginalized and economically weaker backgrounds.

COVID-19 has aggravated some already dire problems: lockdowns, school closure and increasing gap between economic classes as well as the rise in poverty from the cost of treatment have spelt disaster for an alarmingly large percentage of students worldwide.

Reports have pointed at a surge in child marriages, particularly affecting girls, with the UNICEF declaring an additional 10 million girls to be facing the threat of child marriage as a result of COVID-19.

Child sexual abuse has also seen a steep increase during COVID-19. Reported sexual abuse cases in children at the hands of family members has risen dramatically.

Social media which has been hailed as an alternative to actual social interaction has also seen a steady rise in the abuse and exploitation of minors, with trafficking, child pornography and sexual predators heavily exploiting online platforms due to the lack of appropriate monitoring of the respective companies and inadequately framed laws, especially in developing and underdeveloped nations. COVID-19 has also increased the use of child labor, with students being taken out of education to assist their families economically.

Subjecting children to be locked up at home with physically and mentally abusive family members and predators 24x7, as well as exploitation in the form of child labor, not only causes physical stress, but also proves traumatic for the children.

Various organizations have been working hand-in-hand with governments worldwide to restore normalcy to the children.

Key developments have been the decision to vaccinate the children as well as reopening schools and colleges.

Faith needs to be shown in sociological and psychological research and caution needs to be implemented while experimenting with online education, which is a system without a precursor. While moving workplaces online, children should be the last to bear the burden of the side effects of experiment of such a large scale.

It only seems logical to implement online methods and frameworks in offices and colleges first, where the populace being affected have more ability to cope with the negative effects. It is also of utmost importance that equity is maintained among the various sections of the population such as those based on race, gender or ethnicity, as well as economy.

Prioritizing schools and colleges as the basic blocks of community building, providing mental health professionals at educational institutions and mitigating the worsening conditions of exploitation of minors and young adults by adequately educating, screening and strengthening policymakers and implementers is the need of the hour.

Locking up people at home goes against nature and biology and the youth or student community, especially the ones underage, should be the last the suffer the brunt of it. At the end of the day, we work to live and not live to work and no amount of remedial meditation or psychological help can cure the psychological issues that will be developed from being socially isolated.

The joy of working can only be realized by benefitting from what we create.

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