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Here’s What Would Happen If Schools Didn’t Reopen For a Full Year

A sociologist, a child development expert, a psychologist, and an education policy expert weigh in on the effects.

The pandemic is making this the strangest start to a school year of a lifetime. Nothing’s for certain with America’s school openings. It’s up to states — and in many cases different school districts — to decide to open their doors. And with so much we don’t know about COVID-19, it’s a toss-up whether schools that open will stay open.

Unfortunately, this ambiguity about schools and safety isn’t temporary. In New Jersey and New York State, for instance, where COVID hit early and hard, infection rates and hospitalizations have eased enough to make it seem like the worst may be over. But COVID-19 is spiking in Europe, sparking fears of a second wave. Questions linger about children and the transmission of the virus. If something big, new, and bad happens, schools won’t stay open long.

It’s not a fun mental exercise, but we wondered: What would happen if schools stayed closed for an entire year? That is, no in-person instruction for an entire calendar year, only remote learning. We asked experts in different fields about what it would look like if schools went all-remote, all-year. Child development researchers, sociologists, education policy experts and psychologists all rang the same warning bell: remote education exacerbates the already alarming inequality existing among American schoolchildren. Younger children and students with special needs and learning disabilities would be in danger of getting left behind. Silver linings are, however, evident. Educators have already innovated remote learning and experts expect them to find more creative solutions if they need to teach remotely for a whole year. And, as we often forget, kids are more resilient and adaptable than we often think. 

What Would Happen if Schools Did Remote Learning For An Entire Year, According to an Education Policy Expert

Kevin Weiner is the executive director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education. 

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Without additional resources to target the students most in need, the shift to remote instruction exacerbates the existing inequalities that we’ve seen for years and years. The vast majority of students are suffering from lost opportunities to learn, but it’s hitting some kids harder than others. And the kids who it’s hitting harder than others are the same kids who are on the wrong end of the opportunity gaps in non pandemic times as well. 

Those students rely on school-based resources that have been reduced or disappeared — everything from meals to health care to services for students with special needs. Similarly, students whose first language isn’t English are at a greater disadvantage without in-person schooling. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are examples of remote instruction where the teaching is of high quality and the students thrive. If I’m a student in a class that has engaging and supported remote learning opportunities — and this is the important part — and I have the support at home. Not just for learning, but for things like eating. 

That’s the ideal. And then the non-ideal would be I’m not able to access the internet reliably. I’m not able to find a quiet learning space. I don’t necessarily have the nutrition available at home or I’m a student with special learning needs or I’m a student whose first language isn’t English. Even with an adult at home, I still could be really struggling to learn remotely. 

There are alternatives to putting your child in front of a screen for a sustained period of time. If you’re talking about a first grader, even two hours a day is excessive. My impression is schools are doing a much better job this fall than they did last spring when they were just thrown into it. The quality of the remote instruction, the expectations, and the engaging nature of it and taking advantage of the fact that the kids have other resources at home that they don’t necessarily have in schools. There are things that you start to just learn.  

What Would Happen if Schools Did Remote Learning For an Entire Year, According to a Sociologist

University of Ohio professor Douglas Downey has studied the sociology of schools and inequality since the ‘90s. For a 2019 study of America’s achievement gap, Downey found that children in urban schools learn as well as wealthier students and that inequality was driven by home environments, not schools. He’s now studying how the pandemic will affect the achievement gap. 

From our perspective, exposure to schools is a really good thing for disadvantaged kids. They get a bigger boost out of school than advantaged kids under normal conditions. Our prediction before the pandemic happened was that if they’re exposed to school less, it’ll be bad for inequality and the kids on the bottom will suffer the most. 

The main problem is that home environments are widely disparate and highly unequal. School environments aren’t exactly perfectly equal, but they’re much more equal, so schools end up being a compensatory institution. When kids are exposed to less schools and dependent more on homes, then you have a lot more winners and losers. And unfortunately we expect that will result in larger achievement gaps and more inequality among children.

Kids are getting a smaller dose of school under the pandemic. And we believe that when you do that, you increase inequality even more. Schools, especially for disadvantaged kids, not only have good learning environments, they also provide health benefits. Disadvantaged kids, especially, are less likely to gain body mass index when they’re in school. We consistently find that kids gain body mass index about two to three times faster in the summer than the school year. They don’t have the structure of school and they have more free access to food.  We might complain about school meals but they’re better than Doritos and Oreos.

What Would Happen if Schools Did Remote Learning For an Entire Year, According to an Early Childhood Development Expert

Steven Barnett is the Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers Graduate School for Education. In May, NIEER surveyed parents of young children about their experiences with preschool under the pandemic and found that virtually all the public programs shut down and only half the parents sent their kids to the ones that remained open. 

If there’s good news, it’s that teachers used remote tools to communicate with parents and communicate with the kids. They did some learning activities online. They provided some learning activities for parents to do with their kids offline, including physical activities, language, reading, and other cognitive stuff. The basic problem was that maybe 20 percent of those of the kids were getting those with some frequency. 

Young children don’t learn well online. That’s not how they roll. They learn best through direct experience through responsive interactions with others. Trying things with physical objects. Building. Working on puzzles. Doing artwork. Having conversation with the teacher and having conversations with other kids. If there’s an active ingredient, it’s the one-on-one response, but intentional where the adult has a goal, even if they’re following the child’s lead, where they’re in small groups. And that’s very difficult to do online rather than in person. 

One mom told me she had this great program her kid was in. This teacher was really fabulous. After five minutes, her daughter folded this screen down and picked up a book and said read to me. In a nutshell that, from a child’s point of view, the real interaction isn’t there on a screen in the same way it is with a person you can climb into their lap.

We all know young children already have way too much screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization say no more than an hour a week. Most kids are getting more than twice that. And so how do you do this online education without adding more screen time? That in itself is a struggle. 

The best programs use screens as a communication tool to facilitate remote learning offline. No one was prepared to do this in the spring. We’re hoping they’re better prepared in the fall. But the fundamental problem is that a young kid is not like a high school student. I know of programs who were doing this as well as you can. But I don’t know how long parents can carry the load. If you’re not a working parent, if you don’t have a job other than raising your kids,then you can see how parents can pick that up. 

I think that we run into just the fundamental problem that the way it works for children of working parents is we’ve integrated care and education. And now we’ve had to take them apart and we don’t have any more hours. And so my fear is that people will get worn out and it doesn’t work that some parents will anticipate this and say, well, I’m just going to redshirt my kid, meaning that this is a year off and they will go to kindergarten or preschool a year later. They won’t miss the experience. They’ll just have a gap year. 

We don’t know what the consequences of pushing everything back a year will be. And so for everybody else, they would just continue to try to do the best they can with the remote learning.

What Would Happen if Schools Did Remote Learning For an Entire Year, According to a Child Psychiatrist

Gene Beresin is a psychiatrist and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Younger children are going to have a harder time sitting in front of a screen. But if they’re fortunate enough to have parents who can actually guide them through some academics and if they can have some social time with other kids, like little playgroups or drawing or singing groups online, it will be much better. 

School-age kids, in terms of academics, are much more capable of using screens. But they will still need guidance. And they will still need social/emotional learning. And I think some schools who are paying attention to this know that they will have to have modules that are geared to creativity, conflict resolution and role play, taking turns and playing games together as well as mastering the cognitive skills. 

With the early elementary school age children, we’re going to have to be really creative about it. But here’s the thing: it can be done. Over the years, kids have learned a ton from Sesame Street. Sesame Street worked because Henson knew they weren’t just attracted to the puppets. But they also had enough material to engage the adults. The talent they would use, like Harry Belafonte or Robin Williams or whoever was on, were saying jokes to the parents. It would fly way over the kids heads but it was keeping the parents engaged. So the child and the parents and the television were there doing things together. 

That model works. It works for learning. The parent is present, the child is present, there’s really interesting stuff on the screen, and now it can be even more creative than the Sesame Street program, to the extent that we capture that technology and we can capture that parent. Or if not the parent then there’s going to have to be a special time that the teacher can use with students assessing their progress and what deficits there are and documenting what there are. 

The other important message for kids of all ages is that what they miss developmentally, whether it’s academic, social, moral, they can get back. The good thing about being human is that you don’t lose anything. The great thing about the brain is plasticity. We have the ability to recapture experiences that we had some gaps in. It’s not a matter of losing something that’s going to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Our brains are capable of recapturing those things that we lost. It’s a matter of parents and teachers and tutors and coaches and older siblings and needing to know what needs monitoring. 

It’s true that the early stages of learning — reading, writing, arithmetic and social and peer interactions — are really very important years. What we’re going to have to do is capture and recreate them using screens and using games at home.