The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to admit it: Remote education is a failure

A classroom is empty with the lights off last month at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Whenever someone expressed concerns about the quality of remote education back in the early days of covid-19, they were all but shamed into silence. No, the spring did not go well, but that was done on the fly, with next to no preparation. No, it’s not an ideal solution, but staying with in-person instruction is out of the question. There is a learning curve, we were told. We’ll get this thing right with time.

Here’s how that worked out: In Houston, the number of students with failing grades is exploding. In St. Paul, Minn., a high school student is almost as likely to be on track to fail a class as pass it. In the junior high and high schools of Fairfax County — one of the wealthiest counties in the United States — 1 out of 10 students flunked at least two classes, and the number was almost double that for those with disabilities. Enrollment is falling in closed school districts from coast to coast and many points in between. Some children are exiting for private schools, or private pods. Others are simply MIA.

In the vast majority of cases, remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person education — no matter what efforts are made, no matter how many teacher trainings are offered.

It’s not simply a matter of subpar or nonexistent Internet or computer access, something that impacts students from more than 4 million households. Small children, as it turns out, will not sit in front of a computer to listen to a teacher or complete an assignment without supervision. That means millions of parents — for the most part, moms — got conscripted as unpaid teacher’s assistants. And while older children don’t need parents next to them in order to do their work, they often won’t do it regardless.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

Plus, children receive emotional support in school, both from teachers and socializing with peers. Minus that, parents report their school-age children are experiencing increased moodiness, and difficulties regulating behavior and their attention.

While pandemic school closures have been challenging for many children, special-needs students like McKenzie West are falling further behind. (Video: The Washington Post)

And, of course, in the way it always works in the United States, minority and low-income students are feeling the impact the most, even though their educational outcomes were already at risk.

All of this could have, and should have been known. Despite the proclamations of Silicon Valley that tech would revolutionize and improve education, the opposite reality has been apparent for years. A 2015 study of online charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, determined that students did better in math and reading when attending in-person schools, and concluded, “academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.” One of the study’s authors, in a call with reporters, said the math results were so dismal it appeared as if “the student did not go to school for the entire year.”

This makes it imperative that we get all children back in the schools sooner rather than later. But here the news is not good. Despite the fact that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to get some elementary-school children back into the classroom, the doors remain firmly shut to those in the sixth grade and higher. Other major urban districts such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas remain remote-only. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sends his own four children to a private school open for hybrid learning, recently allowed the public schools that are open to remain open, but made it all but impossible for any more to reopen until covid-19 caseloads fall significantly. (And this in one of the few states where year-round outdoor learning is actually feasible!)

Parents are getting increasingly angry. In New York City, parent protests were likely instrumental in getting the schools reopened. In California, a lawsuit was filed against the state on Monday, charging that because minorities are more likely to attend remote schools, they are deprived of their constitutional right to an equal education.

This remote learning debacle cannot continue — the costs will be too high. Schools are an essential service, and teachers essential workers. If we continue to act otherwise, the consequences of the shuttered school buildings will likely haunt us for decades.

Read more:

Leana S. Wen: Most schools should close and stay closed through winter

Danielle Allen and Ashish Jha: We’ve figured out it’s safe to have schools open. Keep them that way.

Emily Oster: Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data explains why.

Joseph G. Allen and Sara Bleich: Why three feet of social distancing should be enough in schools

Helaine Olen: It’s past time for schools to reopen

Kathleen Parker: Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. So schools must reopen.