As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, millions of students are once again shifting to all-remote learning.

Between Sunday, Nov. 22 and Monday, Nov. 23, the percentage of students exclusively attending school online jumped from 36.9 to 40 percent.

Once again, school leaders and government officials are scrambling to figure out logistics.

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But there's a huge remote learning side effect they've yet to consider: Student loneliness.

Children are suffering terribly due to government-imposed lockdowns, school closures and extreme social distancing. In terms of early mortality risk, social isolation can be just as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a study in Perspectives of Psychological Science.

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As schools shut down in-person classes, parents and educators need to prioritize social interaction. Our children's emotional and mental health depend on it.

Due to COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions, children are missing out on play dates, sports competitions and other afterschool social activities.

This lack of social interaction is already taking a toll on young students. Earlier this year, after at least two months of COVID isolation, 23 percent of elementary students in Hubei, China, exhibited depression symptoms. Here in the United States, nearly a third of parents say social isolation has inflicted mental or emotional harm on their children, according to a June Gallup poll.

The scientific community has long understood that play and playdates aren't just frivolous fun. They are an integral part of kids' happiness and development.

Unstructured playtime reduces children's stress levels and helps mitigate the risk of depression, according to an expert from rural health care nonprofit Sanford Health. And kids who do not engage in healthy social time are more likely to have problems with cognitive development.

Educators have to play a role. The first step is taking the need for playtime seriously.

Social isolation can even feel like physical pain, according to a University of North Carolina mental health professor. "The brain reacts to the loss of social interaction in the same way that it might experiencing a physical illness or actual pain, so we do need to figure out a way to have kids engaged in positive social interactions with peers," she explains.

Thankfully, kids can socialize without unduly increasing their risk of catching COVID-19.

Parents can organize playtimes with small groups of neighborhood kids, even if it needs to be socially distanced. Or spearhead neighborhood picnics. As the weather gets colder, they could organize activities in the school gymnasium or schedule Zoom scavenger hunts.

Educators have to play a role as well. The first step is taking the need for playtime seriously.

At my micro school, Mysa School, we've transitioned to a hybrid learning model during the pandemic. We welcome students to campus once a week and do the rest of our teaching online.

We've made it a point not to use our in-person time for math class or reading lessons. Instead, we prioritize social activities. Students might use their time on campus to make socially-distanced TikToks, play sports, make art together or go on nature walks.

Schools going fully online for the winter will have to be a bit more creative. A charter school network in Texas, for example, is conducting "circle time" via videoconference. Students will take turns sharing experiences and get 45 minutes of social and emotional learning each morning.

Emerson Elementary in Oakland is trying out "virtual recess," encouraging students to chat about anything they'd like while teachers stay on mute.

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When sheltering-in-place first began, adults stayed sane by planning Zoom happy hours and reconnecting with old friends. Kids didn't have that. They went from running around playgrounds to figuring out math problems at the kitchen counter.  

Social isolation is a dangerous side effect of this pandemic. It's up to parents and teachers to save play dates. Otherwise, our kids will pay the price.

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