Casualties of Zoom school are real: Online school put kids behind

Boston: Vivian Kargbo thought her daughter’s Boston school district was doing the right thing when officials kept classrooms closed for most students for more than a year.

But her daughter became depressed and stopped doing school work or paying attention to online classes. The former honor-roll student failed nearly all of her eighth-grade courses. “She’s behind,” said Kargbo, whose daughter is now in tenth grade. “It didn’t work at all. Knowing what I know now, I would say they should have put them in school.”

Preliminary test scores around the country confirm what Kargbo witnessed: The longer many students studied remotely, the less they learned. Some educators and parents are questioning decisions in cities from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles to remain online long after clear evidence emerged that schools weren’t COVID-19 super-spreaders — and months after life-saving adult vaccines became widely available.

There are fears for the futures of students who don’t catch up. They run the risk of never learning to read, long a precursor for dropping out of school. They might never master simple algebra, putting science and tech fields out of reach. The pandemic decline in college attendance could continue to accelerate, crippling the U.S. economy.

As a sign of how inflammatory the debate has become, there’s sharp disagreement among educators, school leaders, and parents even about how to label the problems created by the online school. “Learning loss” has become a lightning rod. Some fear the term might brand struggling students or cast blame on teachers, and they say it overlooks the need to save lives during a pandemic.

Regardless of what it’s called, the casualties of Zoom school are real.

Some public health officials and educators warned against second-guessing the school closures for a virus that killed over a million people in the U.S. More than 200,000 children lost at least one parent. “It is very easy with hindsight to say, ‘Oh, learning loss, we should have opened.’ People forget how many people died,” said Austin Beutner, a former superintendent in Los Angeles.

The question isn’t merely academic.

School closures continued last year because of teacher shortages and COVID spread. It’s conceivable another pandemic might emerge — or a different crisis.

But there’s another reason for asking what lessons have been learned: the kids who have fallen behind. Some third graders struggle to sound out words. Some ninth graders have given up on school because they feel so behind they can’t catch up. The future of American children hangs in the balance.

Many adults are pushing to move on, to stop talking about the impact of the pandemic — especially learning loss. “As crazy as this sounds now, I’m afraid people are going to forget about the pandemic,” said Jason Kamras, superintendent in Richmond, Virginia.

It was already clear that remote learning was devastating for many young people. But did the risks of social isolation and falling behind outweigh the risks of children, school staff, and families catching the virus?

The tradeoffs differed depending on how vulnerable a community felt. Black and Latino people, who historically had less access to health care, remain nearly twice more likely to die of COVID than white people. Parents in those communities often had deep-rooted doubts about whether schools could keep their children safe.

Yet many schools stayed closed well into the spring, including in California, where the state’s powerful teachers’ unions fought returning to classrooms, citing a lack of safety protocols.

Nationally, kids whose schools met mostly online in the 2020-2021 school year performed 13 percentage points lower in math and 8 percentage points lower in reading compared with schools meeting mostly in person, according to a 2022 study by Brown University economist Emily Oster.

The setbacks have some grappling with regret. “I can’t imagine a situation where we would close schools again unless there’s a virus attacking kids,” said Eric Conti, superintendent for Burlington, Massachusetts, a 3,400-student district outside Boston. His students alternated between online and in-person learning from the fall of 2020 until the next spring. “It’s going to be a very high bar.”

In some communities, demographics and the historic underinvestment in schools loomed large, superintendents said. In the South, Black Americans’ fear of the virus was sometimes coupled with mistrust of schools rooted in segregation. Cities from Atlanta to Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, shuttered schools — in some cases, for nearly all of the 2020-2021 school year.

In Clayton County, Georgia, home to the state’s highest percentage of Black residents, schools chief Morcease Beasley said he knew closing schools would have a devastating impact, but the fear in his community was overwhelming. “I knew teachers couldn’t teach if they were that scared, and students couldn’t learn,” he said.

Among teachers, there’s some dispute about online learning’s impact on children. But many fear some students will be scarred for years.

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