Story at a glance

  • This spring, students were sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Teachers and parents have had to adjust to remote learning.
  • For the upcoming school year, some schools are considering hybrid models with both remote and in-person learning.

Parents and students across the U.S. are heading into summer break, but on their minds is what will happen when it comes time to go back to school in the fall. Some schools are preparing to bring a third to a half of their students into the schools at a time, alternating days or weeks with the other half. Remote learning will likely remain in the mix.

The current situation with schools closing during the COVID-19 pandemic is an emergency response to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Remote teaching is a “temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate mode due to crisis circumstances,” says Rebecca B. Reynolds at School of Communication & Information of Rutgers University. “The primary objective is to quickly provide temporary, reliable access to instruction and support during a crisis, not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem.” Although it’s not ideal to continue with all remote learning in the fall, some online learning may be the safest way for students to go back to school.

Kindergarten through 12th grade

Although some children regularly attended online schools before COVID-19, the large majority of children had no prior experience with remote learning before the pandemic. For K-12 education, “online learning can be as good or even better than in-person classroom learning,” says Christine Greenhow, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. “Research has shown that students in online learning performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction, but it has to be done right.”

Online learning can help students flourish. The best online learning combines elements in which students can go at their own pace and are set-up to think deeply and critically about subject matter with elements in which students go online at the same time to interact with other students, their teacher and the content, says Greenhow. The students can have more control over their learning process in an online learning environment.

However, there are disadvantages to online learning. Teachers need the right tools and support to teach online. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have had to rethink their classes entirely and many are struggling under increased workloads while learning new techniques. It’s important to realize that learning online is not as simple as uploading and delivering content, says Michelle Miller at Northern Arizona University. “Experts agree that the power of online learning doesn’t come from the content itself, but rather from the active engagement students have with that content, with the faculty, and with one another.”

Security is also an issue. There have been reports of people crashing the group calls to yell profanity or show inappropriate images. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put out a warning about online classroom hijacking.


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Other major concerns during the pandemic have been lack of access to equipment and the internet. “Students without reliable, fast internet or suitable devices for schoolwork or people around them to help are spotlighted in the shift to virtual education,” says Greenhow.

Also missing is the much needed “presence” provided by teachers in elementary school, who often pull up a chair and sit next to individual students, observing, supporting and scaffolding their work after a lesson is provided, says Reynolds. Students may also have varying “motivational disposition and self-regulatory capacities,” which could make online learning more challenging for some students than others, she adds.

Colleges and universities

When it comes to university education, the situation is different from K-12. Many universities already have systems in place for online learning. But that’s not to say their experiences this spring were easier. “Many college students experience some of the same challenges that K-12 students face upon returning home under quarantine: competing for digital resources and experiencing the challenges of their own motivational and regulatory dispositions and capacities,” says Reynolds. The stress of leaving campus in the midst of a pandemic also adds to their mental health burden.

Learning outcomes from remote classes may not be the same as in-person classes. A large body of research since the 1980s found that online learning was typically equivalent to in-person learning, says Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. This literature became known as the “no significant differences” research.

But newer research over the last decade calls that into question. In a 2012 study of California’s community colleges, Ray Kaupp, who is now the regional director of the Bay Area Community College Collaborative, coined the term “online penalty,” which is more severe for vulnerable students. The study focused on Latinx and white students and reports that completion and success rates are lower for Latinx students. “Online instruction was found to significantly exacerbate the achievement gap, with Latino students experiencing a nine percentage point lower success rate, grades that average two-tenths of a grade point lower, and withdrawal rates over twice as high,” writes Kaupp.


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The upcoming fall semester

Parents have had to adjust to home schooling, many of whom have been working from home at the same time. Some parents are hoping for normal school days in fall. “Everyone, including myself, wants to go back every day,” says Naomi Peña, a mother of three New York City public school students, to The New York Times. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s wishful thinking.”

This past semester may have been the worst case scenario for throwing teachers, students and parents into unknown territory, so it should not be seen as a model for what the future holds. Looking to the fall, many schools are considering a hybrid model in which some learning is online and some is in-person. School administrators may use the summer to prepare for the fall and teachers may get trained on best practices. But that may still leave out the most vulnerable students if they cannot improve access to technology, and this will have consequences. “If we cannot get our most marginalized students back in buildings in the fall, we will see the dreadful gaps in opportunity and outcomes continue to widen, with lasting negative impact on students and families,” says Reich.

Whatever the plan for the fall, it will take time to adjust because of the numerous health and safety factors to take into consideration in regards to the coronavirus. “We know that we must have a thoughtful process to reacclimate children, parents, and staff to being back in school buildings," NYC schools Chancellor Richard Carranza writes in a letter to parents, according to NBC New York. "This means we must focus on the social-emotional needs of school communities while implementing trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning."

Now that schools are no longer in panic mode because of the immediate need to transition to online learning, they might be able to better address other issues and implement more comprehensive guidelines.

“One important thing I felt my institution tried to emphasize was moving online with equity in mind and trying to reduce learner anxiety,” says Maha Bali from the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo to Inside Higher Ed. For example, they recommend that faculty not rely too heavily on synchronous videoconferencing so as not to disadvantage students whose internet infrastructure is poorer. Still, Bali says she worries that this pandemic has been a horrible experience of online learning for many and they will never want to do it again.

College students are worried about graduating on time, finances and whether to return to campus in the fall. And parents of K-12 students are preparing for another new routine to get used to. Peña tells the Times, “Every single parent I know, their whole routine they have cherished and worked so hard to preserve is completely out the window, and in the trash can.”

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Jul 01, 2020