A key lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is remote learning has been an abject failure for public schools. That has been obvious for months as even strong students fail, many of the most vulnerable are MIA and burned-out parents struggle to help their children.
Failure to grasp the fact that remote education on a large scale for a long time is a poor substitute for in-class learning will haunt us all.
The notion Zooming our way through classes was the future — and the future was now — was wishful prognosticating. Technology has and will always change how we learn. But it can never replace in-class learning, and that’s becoming painfully evident in Galveston County.
In December, The Daily News reported that in Galveston Independent School District, for instance, more than 59 percent of high school students failed a class during the first or second grading periods of the year, up from 31.5 percent in the previous school year, according to the district.
In the spring, those who championed remote learning as the future attempted to reassure everyone the chaos would pass. It didn’t.
In response to a Texas Education Agency demand, districts in the county are reaching out to students struggling with online learning to request they return to classrooms.
None of this is a criticism of educators and support staff who were ill-equipped and untrained for the experiment thrust upon them by pandemic panic. In fact, teachers, superintendents, cafeteria workers and campus maintenance crews are the heroes of this story. They raced to get lunches, resources and computers to students who wouldn’t have had them otherwise.
The pandemic laid bare just how important public schools are to society. We should remember that the next time somebody advocates dismantling them, as somebody surely will.
Failure of the vast experiment shouldn’t have been a surprise. In 2015, in the first national study of its kind, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed results foreshadowing problems to come. The study focused on online public charter schools that receive tax dollars but operate privately, often under the leadership of for-profit companies.
Students in those virtual K-12 charter schools learn significantly less on average than students at traditional public schools, the study found.
Online charter students lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math during the course of a 180-day school year, the study found. In other words, when it comes to math, it’s as if the students didn’t attend school at all, researchers told The Washington Post.
“There’s still some possibility that there’s positive learning, but it’s so statistically significantly different from the average, it is literally as if the kids did not go to school for an entire year,” Margaret E. Raymond, project director at the center, told The Post.
That can’t be blamed solely on technology or lack thereof. Much of it has to do with the structure students find in classrooms and just can’t get at home.
“Many students rely on the structure and support of in-person school to help them stay on track with assignments,” according to the Child Mind Institute. “Distance learning means students need to be more independent and responsible for their own learning.
“Families may be trying to help, but many are also trying to juggle work while their kids are learning at home,” according to the institute, which researches brain development.
Once students get off track and miss a few assignments, catching up is daunting, according to the institute. “They may just disengage instead.”
The consequences are most dire for low-income and minority children who are less likely to have appropriate technology and home environments for independent study compared with their wealthier peers, according to various reports.
Some experts argue it’s time to stop talking about the risks of keeping schools open during the pandemic and start talking about the risks of keeping them closed.
“As a pediatrician, I am really seeing the negative impacts of these school closures on children,” Dr. Danielle Dooley, a medical director at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told NPR in October.
Dooley ticked off mental health problems, hunger, obesity linked to inactivity, missing routine medical care and the risk of child abuse — on top of the loss of education, according to NPR.
“Going to school is really vital for children,” Dooley said. “They get their meals in school, their physical activity, their health care and their education, of course.”
• Laura Elder