After schools closed during the coronavirus pandemic, teachers scrambled to put their lessons online, suddenly trying to teach lessons they had always done in person over Zoom, Schoology, or Google Classroom.
And throughout all this, parents and educators alike were left to wonder: What will the aftermath look like?
“Certainly what school leaders are going to be worried about is, are students coming back in the fall—if we can indeed come back in the fall—not nearly as prepared for this grade as we thought they would be or as we generally expect them to be?” St. Louis University’s dean of education Gary Ritter explains.
According to Ritter and several other experts on early childhood education and development, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the child; it depends on their homelife; it depends on how the teacher adapted to online teaching.
One thing all the experts mentioned was how online education highlighted inequities in the schooling system. Most of a child’s success was dependent on what sort of access they had: Did they have technology at home? How about high-speed internet? Were their parents there to help them with the material and staying on top of schoolwork?
These inequities can make an already challenging situation even more difficult for students.
“In terms of what’s going to be needed for the fall, I think it’s going to be very important that we do address the clear digital divide that we have in our community,” Dr. Dannielle Davis, an associate professor of education at Saint Louis University, says.
This divide tends to follow socioeconomic lines. Lower-income families will often have less access to reliable technology, and parents with less time to help out. Ritter warns that these fault lines may also follow district lines since school districts with fewer resources will be able to help kids less.
“There are more things you have to do if you’re serving low-income kids,” he says. “So now, it’s certainly the case that it’s harder for school leaders serving high concentrations of low-income kids to figure out how to navigate the instructional needs, in addition to all the other needs they’re navigating.”
However, Ritter says online learning was likely difficult regardless of resources, just by the nature of the beast.
“It’s hard for most teachers to engage kids most of the time anyway. It’s going to be way harder for them to engage students on a new medium with all kinds of distractions,” Ritter says, “So even in the best-case scenario, I’m skeptical that it would have been as good as whatever is occurring in the classroom.”
Davis, however, says parents shouldn’t be too worried. She was homeschooled on and off throughout her life, homeschools her son and teaches online classes for kids ages nine through 17, so she was familiar with online schooling even before the pandemic.
In her experience, kids with an online education can do just as well as those who attend classes in person.
She does acknowledge that it’s critical to involve the parents and teach online correctly, though.
“I think that if we provide parents with the resources, the support—if we train teachers to creatively involve families within this process of learning—I think that learning can occur and can occur at a high level. I really do,” she says.
This can be done by allowing students to work more independently, conducting their own research on subjects, or relating lessons to the world around them.
In some cases, online learning was a good thing for students and parents. Parents got to spend more time with their kids. Kids with anxiety or who were bullied in school may have felt more comfortable at home. Students who learned better independently could often complete lessons at their own pace. But for the majority, online learning presented a challenge.
“I think it’s always worth thinking of those odd cases, but for the most part, kids probably miss interacting,” Ritter says. Isolation on top of concern about the virus could take its toll. “All the mental health challenges and wellness challenges, on the internet it’s going to obviously be much harder for most parents and most kids.”
Steve Zwolak, executive director of University City Children’s Center, says he has seen this toll firsthand as kids begin returning to the center in what they’re calling a “reunion” instead of a reopening.
“The concern is that social distancing might turn into emotional distancing,” he says. He tells the story of three kids who came back and showed dramatic signs of feeling abandoned by their teachers, either by distancing themselves or leaping into teachers’ arms in tears.
For younger kids especially, it’s difficult to get the same sort of interaction through a computer screen. Zwolak suggests parents sit with their kids through lessons whenever possible to help mitigate what’s lost.
With summer comes an opportunity for parents to help their kids catch up or stay on track for when school returns in the fall, whether it’s online or in person. Davis suggests going back through the work kids did during the school year and giving them some extra help in subjects they struggled with. She also recommends encouraging regular reading and discussion. Ritter says it’s important to make sure kids are doing something productive semi-regularly.
Outside of school work, Davis says parents should observe their kids and see how they learn and how their skills, both social and academic, are developing.
In the end, Ritter says he believes the kids will be okay. “My hunch is, kids are resilient. My hunch is, lots of kids in a more micro level have situations like this all the time,” Ritter says. “I suspect, for each individual kid, a few weeks of getting subpar instruction happens. I had a bad fifth-grade math teacher. I didn’t learn much math in fifth grade. And I recovered, I figured it out.”