Distance Learning in U.S. Schools: The Report Cards Are Sobering

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11 mins read

In the virtual classroom of 2020, students are not physically present. Instead, they appear on the screen as faces on a geometric grid, or simply as black boxes labeled with names. School districts around the country have been in some state of online schooling, known as distance learning (DL), since the start of the school year. What goes on in these virtual classrooms? The first report cards have rolled in and they reveal a host of sobering statistics. Here are just a few:

  • At a large district in Virginia, where few kids had in-person learning, 11% of middle and high school students failed at least two classes, compared to 5% from the same period last fall.
  • Among middle and high school students in DL at a large district in Houston, 41% failed at least one class, while the failure rate among students receiving in-person instruction was only 15%.
  • Every second-grader in DL at a public charter elementary school in Washington, D.C. fell behind in reading from the previous year.

Sadly, these results are not anomalies. In Chicago Public Schools (CPS) — a district that has not returned to in-person schooling — students at every grade level received fewer passing marks than in the previous year. In Texas, high failure rates and unexcused absences led the Texas Education Agency to give school districts the power to require students return to in-person learning. Educators across the country are in dismay. Houston-area Superintendent HD Chambers said, “Our internal failure rates — not (standardized) tests, just our teachers teaching, grading, assessing kids — are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” 

But a shallow dive into the data reveals an even more troubling issue: the students taking the biggest academic hit are the students who need the most support — marginalized groups like English language learners, minorities, and poor kids. For example:

  • At the district in Virginia, the failure rate among students learning English and those with disabilities doubled.
  • At CPS, attendance rates were down from the same period last year; attendance for Black students dipped from 94.5% to 88% while for Asian students it fell only slightly, from 97.3% to 96.9%. 
  • At the Washington charter school, 97% of students are Black, nearly 70% are from families qualifying for public assistance, and 13% lack permanent homes.
  • At an elementary school district in Illinois, while Latinx students’ failure rate for at least one class was up 14%, among white students it only rose by 1%.

Even a recent report — that at first read seemed to paint a rosier picture of student achievement — waves huge red flags. More than 4 million U.S. students took nonprofit NWEA’s assessment this fall; results showed mostly typical growth in reading, and a drop in math performance but not as big a decline as predicted. On one hand, the test proved that students are still learning online. But about 1 in 4 students who took this test last fall failed to take it this year — and they were mostly Brown, Black, poor, or low-performing students. What happened to those kids?

From NWEA, accessed at The 74 Million.

All the data yield a few important points: Some of our students are learning in DL. Many of our students are losing learning in DL. Our at-risk students are the ones most negatively impacted by DL.

What does a future look like if we as a society allow school districts to ride out the COVID-19 storm? Last spring McKinsey & Co. projected that if schools did not reopen fully until January 2021, students with average-quality DL risked three to four months of learning but kids with lower-quality DL instruction — Black and Latinx students and other marginalized groups — risked seven to 11 months of learning

Clearly, we need to do something to help students right now. The gold standard is getting all kids back on campus. The numbers show that white students were impacted less by DL last spring than other groups and that fewer lower-income and Latinx teens are now applying for college. In real-life, educators are seeing grades and attendance improve when students are brought on to campus, even for shorter periods.

Both science and other counties show how American students can safely return to school. 

Current science shows how American students can safely return to school. In most of Europe — which, to be sure, has followed more commonsense protocols from the beginning of the pandemic — students are attending school with very little risk of viral transmission by taking precautionary measures (masks, hygiene and ventilation). Explained Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin on kids being in school despite the surge, “This is necessary because we cannot and will not allow our children and young people’s futures to be another victim of this disease. They need their education.” 

But if U.S. communities find it hard to trust the scientists — perhaps understandable considering the whiplash of this past year — educators must find creative solutions. Right now we need leaders who are willing to rethink the way we view the school day and experience. Nothing else looks the same as pre-COVID so why should school be the exception? 

To increase in-person teaching, schools must move beyond a blanket fix. Here are some ideas I came up with after a few hours of brainstorming:

  • Prioritize individual students or marginalized groups who need the support of in-person teaching at all levels, not just elementary, as many districts are doing.
  • Focus in-person instruction on core subjects like English, math, science and social studies and conduct less critical subjects virtually.
  • In districts lacking physical space, utilize additional locations like other campuses with extra classrooms or city facilities.
  • Where climate allows, build outdoor classrooms, erect sports canopies or meet at a nearby park.

Ideas like these — and surely the experts have far more — could be adopted for bringing all kids or just certain student populations back to campus.

No matter how hard educators work, however, we know that some students will remain in DL: for health issues, for the accommodation of higher-need kids, for personal reasons. So educators must provide a more engaging curriculum. Are teachers mostly replicating what goes on in the classroom on the screen? Think about your own interactions on Zoom meetings — do you check social media, dash off a few emails or polish your nails? Just like adults, not all kids have the capability to be present in the virtual classroom. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to reach them by every means available, from communicating more with parents to forming smaller virtual classrooms.

Students also crave typical school experiences — those interactions that occur outside of the classroom. Bring back lunchtime and afterschool clubs, picking specific activities well-suited to online, like chess, debate or drama. In places with mild climates, launch physically distant sports teams, like cross country or tennis, or have clubs meet in parks. 

These suggestions all share a need for creativity, innovation and … money — something the public schools always lack. In response, community members are increasing fundraising efforts, as in California’s Marin Country, where a parent group raised $100,000 to improve distance learning for kids in special education. School districts also could put more effort into grant opportunities from private companies. Unfortunately, not all school communities truly have the ability to avail themselves of such opportunities.

Educators also need the will to succeed despite the circumstances. School and district leaders cannot simply shrug their shoulders under the premise that the pandemic is hitting all kids and we need to ride it out. The futures of an entire generation are too important to risk.

Indeed, this experience may have the slimmest of silver linings: adding weight to the long-voiced demands for school reform, like eradicating racial segregation, equalizing school funding and increasing teacher pay. It is well past time for our nation to commit to the public schools that provide education to 90% of our students.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “Close the bars and keep the schools open.” Until that happens throughout this country, we need to throw every effort behind giving kids the education they deserve.

Photo credit: J. Bell, “The Faces of Distance Learning”


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Rena Korb is a professional writer and editor. Her publications span from children’s books to political commentary. She volunteers as a DemCast California captain and as a leader with her local Indivisible chapter. She also is a lifelong activist, attending her first protest when she was 16. She lives in San Mateo with her family and, in non-pandemic times, enjoys playing Ultimate frisbee.

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