The Real-World Cost of Remote Learning

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A RAND survey of teachers reinforces widespread doubts about the remote-classroom environment.  

With COVID infection rates, test positivity, and hospitalizations rising at alarming rates, schools face tough choices about whether to further delay reopening or, where open, return to last spring’s fully remote instruction. While we must take seriously the risks, it’s now clear that schools are not the “superspreaders” some feared. In New York City, just 0.19 percent of the 123,500 COVID tests administered since schools reopened have been positive; in Texas, where 2.1 million students and 800,000 staff members are in-person, the comparable figure for the week ending November 8 was 0.22 percent.

If remote learning was as effective as in-person learning, even modest risks might seem unnecessary. But evidence suggesting that the costs of closure are substantial continues to accumulate. In a new national survey of more than 2,000 teachers and principals, the RAND Corporation this past week raised additional doubts about remote learning. The on-the-ground take of these educators closely tracks other warning signs we’ve seen.

After the chaos of last spring’s makeshift worksheets packets and sporadic Zoom lessons, it was a given that students would be behind this fall. Consistent with analyses that projected widespread learning loss, 66 percent of teachers surveyed by RAND reported that most students are less prepared to do grade-level work this year than last year. When contacted in October, just one in five teachers said they had covered the same content that they’d covered in the same time window last year.

Meanwhile, despite promises that this fall’s remote learning would be much improved over last spring’s stopgap efforts, the RAND survey suggests that the challenges continue. Teachers providing fully remote instruction report that only three-fifths of students have completed most or all assignments, while those providing fully in-person instruction say that 82 percent of their students have completed most or all of their work. And teachers in a fully remote setting were twice as likely as those teaching in person to report a dire need for strategies to keep students engaged and motivated.

Media reports have documented declining attendance rates across the nation. The RAND results put that in a classroom perspective, with teachers providing remote instruction reporting that just 84 percent of enrolled students were typically “present” each day. That’s about twice the absentee rate observed by teachers providing in-person instruction. While schooling can be a dreary or even dangerous experience for some students, for many, it’s an opportunity to connect with friends and mentors in a supportive and engaging environment. When schooling is reduced to Zoom discussions and asynchronous worksheets, that appeal dissipates. And isolated from their peers, students are increasingly experiencing anxiety, depression, and mental-health emergencies.

These findings are all consistent with research on remote learning conducted pre-COVID. In short: While researchers have occasionally observed equal or better outcomes from online learning for a subset of high-achieving students who work well independently, the online instruction offered by most districts today is not a viable substitute for most learners most of the time.

Decisions about reopening schools must, of course, take seriously the dictates of community health. And those devising plans must tend to the challenges of social distancing, personal protective equipment, testing, and the rest. But the low positivity rates in reopened schools, the fact that COVID is generally not a serious threat to students, and the ability to modify school routines to protect vulnerable staff, all combined with the troubling track record of full-time remote learning, suggests that the threshold for shuttering schools should be very high. At a bare minimum, it’s fair to say that states and communities that are keeping strip clubs and casinos open should do all they can to keep schools open.

Unfortunately, too many educators and decision-makers have shown themselves disposed to close their eyes to the sorry state of remote learning as a way to help rationalize an otherwise suspect desire to keep schools closed. Just recently, Education Week, K–12 education’s newspaper of record, featured a widely circulated op-ed by an El Paso teacher ardently denouncing the “coronavirus-deniers” who want schools open and hurl “vitriol” when they’re closed. Waxing enthusiastic about the miracles of virtual teaching, the piece averred that the “sole aim” of those eager to reopen schools is “to cause strife and unrest.” Perhaps such teachers need to consult with some of their less blinkered colleagues.

As school leaders and public officials weigh their response to this latest wave of COVID, they should do so with a clear understanding of the consequences of keeping students out of classrooms.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research associate at AEI.


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