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Opinion The solution to remote learning woes is not more remote learning

A student works on an assignment on a laptop computer at home during a remote learning day in Princeton, Ill., in August 2020. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
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It seems unfathomable that after all this time anyone could think the solution to problems caused by remote learning is less time in the classroom and more remote learning. Just as the hair of the dog that bit you doesn’t work for hangovers, it won’t work for the woes caused by Zoom learning, either. But some school districts and teacher representatives are doing or have done exactly that.

Take Detroit, where public schools are going remote on Fridays this month. The idea, according to school district officials, is to stop coronavirus spread with a weekly deep cleaning, as well as to offer both students and teachers a day for “mental health relief.”

A middle school in Fairview, Ore., in the face of increased fighting and acting out by students after more than a year of remote learning, temporarily returned to remote learning as a circuit breaker (really).

And the teachers union in Portland, Ore., would like to join this horrifying trend. The Portland Association of Teachers recently proposed that the city’s high schools go remote on Fridays, allowing teachers to work with small groups of students to help them catch up on their academics. Not in person. Via computer.

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This is all wrong, in every possible way. Addressing remote burnout and learning loss by asking children to spend more time online is ineffective and counterproductive. (It’s also unlikely to combat coronavirus spread. Studies that have examined the issue conclude schools played an insignificant role in community transmission.)

The trends in learning loss are clear: According to a paper recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, math scores on standardized tests dropped 14 percentage points during the 2020-2021 academic year. Students attending all-remote schools suffered a greater decline than those who took classes in person. “Bottom line: losses are big — and much bigger with less in-person school,” co-author Emily Oster wrote on Twitter.

When the Los Angeles Times broke down the figures for the city’s school district — the country’s second-largest — the education gap had significantly widened among Black and Latino children and their White and Asian peers. The share of Latino students receiving a grade of A, B or C, for example, fell by more than 10 percent, while it dropped only 5 percent for White students.

None of this should shock anyone. It was known before the pandemic that remote schooling produced dismal results. The author of one study on the topic, published in 2015, claimed that remote classes were so ineffective that when it came to math, it was as though children “did not go to school for the entire year.”

Even if remote schooling seemed better than nothing when covid initially hit — and some educators suggested that children were learning important life coping skills such as resilience — it soon became clear that students had higher levels of disengagement. Meanwhile, their mental health issues increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found parents of children attending classes remotely were more likely to report their child’s mental wellness had decreased. In Clark County, Nev., student suicides doubled.

Anecdotal reports on the backsliding among children are all over social media (and, I can personally attest, in casual conversation between parents of school-age children). “A 9th grade math teacher told me that his students at his high school in an upscale New Jersey suburb are about two grades behind,” education blogger Laura McKenna wrote. “At any given time, I have three to seven students who have non-academic needs to address,” New York City teacher Stefanie Goldenberg noted recently in an essay published in Chalkbeat.

No one is denying that teachers have a hard job — one made even harder by the pandemic. Engaging children via remote learning for months on end was a Sisyphean task. Then they were expected to teach children who had been out of classrooms, in some cases, for more than a year. No wonder so many say they are burned out.

But we’re going to be living with covid for the foreseeable future, and doubling down on remote learning is going to make these issues worse, not better. It would be better to use the federal stimulus funds offered up to schools to emphasize small-group learning in the schools themselves. But we also need to reckon with the fact that the damage from the time the schools shut to in-person learning is already substantial and won’t be repaired quickly or easily, and we should not make it worse with more time out of the classroom.

The last thing American children need is more time on Zoom. No one should need to be schooled in the case for not normalizing remote education.