The shift to remote learning during the pandemic has seriously harmed America’s schoolchildren. The end of in-person instruction last spring reduced expected learning gains by an estimated 50% in math and nearly one-third in reading. With the vast majority of schools in urban districts still closed, low-income students are losing ground they might never make up.
This underscores the need to reopen schools as quickly as possible — which, in turn, will require new funds to pay for safety measures and careful limits on activities that might spread the virus. However, even if reopening moves as quickly as prudence allows, schools will need to rely for a while yet on some degree of remote learning. It’s vital to ensure that this kind of instruction is as effective as possible.
There’s been some progress. Since the start of the pandemic, school districts have increased the number of hours students working at home spend in live video classes — a marked improvement on the chaos of last spring, when teachers struggled to adapt to online instruction. In cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, which initially didn’t make synchronous learning mandatory, schools are now required to provide several hours of live classes for all students, depending on grade.
For remote classes to work, students need computers and access to broadband at home. Washington can help by allowing schools to use funds from the federal E-rate program to subsidize residential internet connections, as the latest Democratic stimulus bill would do. School officials should work with providers to identify and connect households that lack reliable service. Cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are showing what can be done.
Getting students online is just the start. The most successful transitions to remote learning have other things in common: a consistent class schedule, tools to track attendance, regular assessments, and online assignments that are collected and graded. And younger students need new, simpler lessons focused on basic skills.
Parents should get more help. Schools should assign advisers to meet with them virtually, solicit feedback and ask about student needs. During regular school hours, dedicated support lines should be open so parents can quickly resolve any glitches.
All this will cost money. In addition to buying new technology, school districts need to give teachers digital training. Districts should offer incentives for teachers to develop online courses and mentor fellow teachers. Such investments can continue to pay off even as normality resumes, by allowing teachers to supplement in-person classes with high-quality virtual coursework that students can use to catch up.
Remote learning has been an ordeal for many students — and for many parents as well. It cannot hope to replace in-school instruction, least of all for the youngest children, who need the kind of training in social skills (how to deal with distraction, work with others, wait your turn) that only a schoolroom setting can provide. Let’s be clear: The sooner children return to the classroom, the better.
Still, for the time being, millions will need to keep learning from home. For as long as that lasts, it’s essential to make this second-best education as good as it can be.
—Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Clive Crook.
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