Prescott Noll, 15, almost never asks questions in class anymore.

Ever since masked children began filing into classrooms in Loudoun County, Va., in February — while Prescott kept learning from home — catching teachers’ attention has become a hassle. Messages sent in a class chat go unanswered. If he unmutes himself to speak, teachers do not hear his query because they’re busy talking to students actually sitting nearby.

He is not blaming his teachers, the 15-year-old said. He sees they have their hands full trying to manage his in-person classmates, ensuring that everyone follows a complex plethora of safety regulations. Plus, the “little ding sound” that heralds a new message in the chat is easy to miss in the hubbub of a full classroom.

To make it through the school day nowadays, Prescott said, he has to look at the bigger picture — tell himself, “Oh, this affects my GPA. I have to pay attention.” He added, “I used to like school.”

As children across the country return to classrooms this spring, greeted by principals and teachers with air hugs, fist-pumping dances and “Welcome Back” videos, many students have chosen to remain just where they’ve been all school year: sitting in front of their computers at home.

Some suffer from medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, or their parents do. Others prefer the distraction-free environment of online learning. Some parents say that at this point in the year, returning to classrooms is overly disruptive.

But those students who are continuing with virtual learning have found that the remote experience is suddenly different in ways both big and small.

It is one more instance in which the pandemic is siloing students into varied and sometimes unequal methods of instruction. The difficulties experienced by some virtual learners are setting off alarm bells in households and administrative offices alike, as parents and school officials plan for the fall and ponder how the online experience should fit in.

Prescott, a high school freshman, is among those who feel the quality of instruction is dropping dramatically as teachers are being asked to manage in-person and remote learners at the same time. Other distance learners say it’s hard to watch their returned classmates on camera and not feel jealous.

And many feel forgotten.

“I’m the only girl staying home [in my class],” said Sophia McMenamin, 11, in Virginia’s Fairfax County. “To be honest, I don’t really have any friends.”

Twenty of the 25 kids in her fifth-grade class have gone back, but Sophia has to stay home because she has Type 1 diabetes, meaning she is high-risk for the virus. She used to take pride in being the first to answer every question her teacher posed. Now, raising her hand virtually — or messaging in the class chat — brings no results.

“The teachers pretty much only call on people in school,” Sophia said. “So it kind of feels like I’m watching class.”

Her mother, Amy Kean, said her bright, bubbly daughter is becoming a shadow of her former self. Invoking “Harry Potter,” she compared it to watching Hermione Granger transform into Neville Longbottom.

During the first day of in-person instruction last month, Anjy Cramer’s son Shan — shocked to see his classmates and teacher back in classrooms in Arlington, Va. — spent most of his time worrying for their safety. He kept asking his teacher, “Is everyone wearing their masks correctly?”

The family chose remote learning because Anjy Cramer has health conditions that render her more susceptible to the virus. Also, Shan, 7, had been doing well with online school, both academically and socially — until others returned. Now, he keeps quiet on Thursdays and Fridays, the days when half of his 22-person class shows up for in-person learning. Shan is not an expressive kid, not one to talk about his feelings, so his silence is how Anjy Cramer knows he is feeling upset.

“You won’t actually see him crying or anything like that,” she said. “He just gets very quiet, doesn’t talk that much, lots of yes and no answers.”

When his peers are in the classroom, “the teacher has to ask him a question for him to respond, as opposed to him raising his virtual hand any time he knows the answer to a question.”

Discontent among remote learners

Frustrations, glitches and sore spots are emerging as schools switch some kids back into school buildings while keeping others remote. This is especially true in places where teachers are being asked to instruct both sets of students at once.

This model, known as concurrent teaching, is widespread across the nation and prevalent in the Washington suburbs. And it’s spurring discontent. Interviews and posts in parent Facebook groups point to the same issue: Virtual learners often cannot hear and participate in the class discussions that, for the first time in a long time, are actually taking place inside classrooms.

The setup varies district to district, school to school and even classroom to classroom. In some places, although teachers speak into microphones, the in-person students lack them, so their questions or answers are audible only to those also in the classroom. If the in-person students log on to their devices at their desks, there could be problems of spotty Internet or not enough outlets to recharge laptops.

Prescott, the 15-year-old in Loudoun, tried using Google Meet’s closed-captioning service once, but lagging video meant the dialogue rendered as “AAAAAAAA.”

He and his three siblings, who attend three different schools, are staying with virtual classes for logistical reasons. Back when everyone was remote, Prescott said, he had no trouble hearing.

Some teachers have started repeating the in-person learners’ comments to the virtual learners and vice versa. This odd ritual plays out in Shan Cramer’s classes.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Anjy Cramer said. “And it wastes learning time.”

Trouble comes from smaller details, too.

For example, Shan has twice shown up a tiny bit late to virtual class. But his teacher, busy caring for in-person students, failed to notice his entry into the Zoom waiting room. So Anjy Cramer texted another parent, and his son admitted her son into school.

“But I know not everyone has that,” she said.

For the Levin-Sheldon family, new pockets of transition time — as in-person students shuffle between classes — have fueled distraction. Yael Levin-Sheldon, mother to two middle-schoolers in Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, said her kids take advantage of the breaks to pick up their iPads. They drift over to YouTube or play video games. Sometimes they forget to return, and she cannot constantly prod them.

Her kids’ grades have dropped in the weeks since others returned to learn inside classrooms, she said.

“They’re losing focus because the focus has shifted,” Levin-Sheldon said, “from the virtual learners to the in-person ones.”

'I think our county did it better'

It’s still early days in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest district, which started sending its youngest children, in kindergarten through third grade, back into classrooms in mid-March. Other grades are slated to return this month.

Still, Mary-Gray Gordon, a mom of three in Silver Spring, said virtual learning is so far working for her children and has “offered the most consistency” as the year winds down.

Socially, her children have found workarounds: Her third-grade daughter has made friends online, relying on breakout rooms and activities like “Fun Fridays” and “Lunch Bunches.”

Her first-grade son actually feels more connected to his class this year, partly because of the teacher’s intense focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, she said. The virtual mode lets him work at his own pace, she said, and he often leaps ahead of the class. Gordon attributes her kids’ successes to the fact that they have virtual-only teachers who are dedicated solely to virtual-only students — and so teachers are not splitting their attention.

“I listen in awe to [my son’s] teacher. It’s just amazing the way she plays with kids,” Gordon said. “He loves her.”

Assigning some teachers to virtual learners and a separate group of teachers to in-person students is hailed by many as the gold standard of hybrid learning. But many school districts don’t have the resources. Some also prioritized keeping students with the same teacher, even if it meant juggling remote and in-person learners all at once.

Hanover County, Va. — a district of roughly 16,000 where school buildings have been open since the fall — is one of the districts that have managed to pull it off. For the most part, in-person learners are learning from in-person teachers, while remote students take lessons from remote instructors.

Shannon Flounders, mother to three, said the system is working well for her 11th-grade daughter, Haley, and eighth-grade son, Mason. She is keeping her children home because their father does not have a spleen, which makes him more vulnerable to the virus.

Ahead of last fall, many parents she knows exchanged worried texts and Facebook comments wondering whether the quality of virtual learning would dip as schools reopened. But, Flounders said, that did not happen.

“I don’t think my kids have a worse education,” she said. “I think our county did it better,” referring to officials’ decision to split the teacher workforce. Hanover even gave its online high-schoolers their own principal and mascot, the OWL, which stands for “online while learning.”

The honeymoon may not last long in Maryland’s Montgomery County. Last month, Barbara Jasper, principal of Sequoyah Elementary School, appeared to anticipate concerns about the fallout for remote learners as she spoke to the school board.

“Our virtual students have not been left behind,” she said. They will get “a strong instructional program that parallels exactly what’s happening in our classrooms.”

School board member Patricia O’Neill predicted continued challenges in the county. She said it is difficult to operate two systems of learning at once without giving short shrift to one or both. She recalled the experience of her fourth-grade granddaughter in Virginia, who at one point had to quarantine and learn remotely while her classmates learned in person: It was harder to get the teacher’s attention and ask questions, even as the instruction stayed the same.

“She found it frustrating,” O’Neill said. “I think [this issue] will come up, especially as there is more of a shift to in-person.”

Social isolation

One fact is undeniable: Virtual learners are more isolated than their in-person peers.

One mother in Loudoun County said her 11-year-old daughter was “a huge social butterfly” before the pandemic. She loved school, and her friends at school. When the pandemic hit and life moved online, she struggled at first, but the family was able to make it work.

This spring, other children headed back inside classrooms. But the girl could not follow because her mother has a long-term illness that renders her susceptible to the virus. Trying to persuade her parents to let her go back, she immersed herself in conspiracy theories she found on YouTube or conservative websites.

“She’ll come and say, ‘I found out the virus is not even real,’ ” said the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s privacy. “I’ll say, ‘Yes it is,’ and she says, ‘So-and-so YouTuber says so.’ ”

The mother has tried limiting her daughter’s time on the computer. But that impaired the girl’s ability to video-chat with friends, the one form of social interaction left to her.

“The knowledge that other kids are going to class and she can’t?” the mother said. “It’s eating her up.”