Online learning options have made it possible for American students who are most concerned about the risks of COVID-19 to continue their education from home. After a year of learning this way, many parents and school districts are considering it as a viable option for children going forward. But before considering virtual learning as a reasonable long-term solution, we need to take an honest look at its costs.
It’s 9 a.m. Time for my Virtual Teen Leadership class to begin. “Good morning, everyone. Let’s get those screens on and get started.” Three faces emerge on my laptop screen. “Good to see y’all. Now, everyone else, please. Let’s get those screens on so we can interact a little bit.” Four more press the button to turn their screens on. Sensing that any more cajoling will only reveal a complete inability to enforce my cameras on policy, I move on to the lesson.
Of 45 high-schoolers in this class, only about 35 routinely attend and only about 25 turn in the majority of their assignments. A handful have never attended class or turned work in. My classes are a discussion between me and eight students.
You might assume that this is what virtual classes look like in a low-achieving school, but you’d be wrong. In many ways, I’m in an ideal high-school in an A-rated, culturally and economically diverse “District of Innovation.” This is what virtual schooling looks like in a good public school.
It is a wonderful, miraculous thing that we can offer virtual learning during this pandemic. A decade ago, this would have been impossible. But now that we have acclimated to the idea, there are those who have fooled themselves into believing it can be a viable option going forward – that it is in any way comparable to what students get from an in-person educational experience. What schools haven’t advertised is that only the most committed students with the most supportive parents are likely to learn in virtual classes. Students must have a routine, a distraction-free environment, a system to keep their assignments organized, and a sense that they will be held accountable for being present, attentive, and responsible for their own learning.
But these conditions are rarely in place. An ethos of customer service has infected American public schools. The ultimate burden of responsibility now lies with the teachers who know that nothing will earn them a severe reprimand faster than failing too many students. After years of grade inflation and lowered standards, students have learned to expect that teachers will jump over hurdles to ensure they pass. The majority only do what is necessary to get by, which is less than ever in the virtual environment. After all, teachers can only make things so complex when no one is responding. When performance inevitably declines, teachers will grade more leniently, offer a succession of participation grades, or otherwise game the system so that grades stay in an acceptable range. Still, substandard education is only the beginning of the problem.
A few days per week, since August, I’ve stared at kids sitting in their bedrooms staring at me through the other end of a screen. Almost all of them have their phone in front of them, away from screen-sight. Some are in bed, some watching TV, some playing video games, and some have siblings coming in and out of the room. With the sound muted, they may be blaring music for all I know. These students have been spending their days this way for over a year now. We’ve taken a generation notorious for their startling lack of desire to gain freedom – their propensity to sit in their rooms conducting social lives through smartphones – and we’ve locked them inside pretending we can meet their educational needs with the addition of one more screen. Even before lockdown, teens and tweens were experiencing a higher incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicide. The primary culprit – a lack of connection, meaningful projects, and integration into their environment. Malaise now blossoms in the fertilizer of these dark, isolated rooms.
Still, many parents have opted to put their students in virtual school for reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. Kids often prefer virtual learning because it is easier and allows them to do what they want all day. Many parents concede. As long as grades don’t slip, all is well. Other parents prefer their kids at home all day so that they are available to run errands or babysit younger siblings. These children are further punished for their parents’ lack of resources or concern for education. Then there are those who allow their kids to choose virtual school so they are less likely to miss a sports competition. In Texas, where I work, virtual students have been allowed to continue playing sports. Students can claim to be too fearful to sit near other students, but then go tackle them after school. In many sports programs, the majority of athletes do this to reduce the risk of being quarantined. Parents who want their kids in school, often concede to the pressure and allow their kids to stay home.
Recently, I asked a soccer athlete if she’d be returning to in-person school now that her season was over. A couple months before, she’d vented to me about how, even with her daily soccer practices, sitting at home all day was making her depressed and anxious in social situations. Avoidance is perhaps the most well-documented exacerbating factor in anxiety. This student recognized how bad virtual schooling had been for her. Yet, now, she justified her decision to continue staying home: “My grades are all good and it would be hard to get used to getting up and getting ready every morning. I’ve already gone this far in virtual, so I might as well just finish up the year.”
For the sake of this generation, we adults will have to start insisting that students face the inconveniences that will make their lives better. We were so lucky.