Remote Education Sucked. Now What?: Growing research shows kids suffered in major ways last year. What can we do to help them?

from the newsletter

Research shows that 18-months of remote education was disastrous for kids. So, those who claimed that “kids are resilient” were just plain wrong. Politicians, who chose to close schools and kept the bars and restaurants open, were wrong. Technology gurus, who predicted that the learning through tablets was the wave of the future, were wrong. 

Still, many knew that the kids were not doing well, especially parents with vulnerablekids, like me. Some of us got on twitter and ranted. I ramped up my newsletter and told stories about how much kids were suffering. I went to school board meetings and complained

In addition to parents in the trenches who knew that major problems were brewing, plenty of education experts predicted disaster. I talked to many of them for articles or at conferences and they all told me the same thing — “predictions are grim.” Yet, those stories took a backseat to mask wars, COVID death counts, and fear journalism. 

Finally, people are starting to take notice. Yesterday afternoon, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota had a story on the current mental health crisis in kids. It’s hard to not be bitter and scream at everyone, “I TOLD YOU SO.” This crisis was so utterly predictable and avoidable, but some adults had their heads up their asses for two years. 

So what do we know? 

Mental health of children and teens plummeted.

Sitting in your bedroom doing classes on your mom’s cellphone (or not doing classes) for nearly two years is bad for a teen’s mental health. Who knew, right? From the Wash Post:

Emergency departments have meanwhile become a tattered safety net for adolescent mental health care. One recent study mirrored Diamond’s experience, showing that suspected suicide attempts dramatically increased among adolescents ages 12 to 17 last February and March. Girls’ visits to emergency departments after suicide attempts soared by nearly 51 percent over 2019, and rose to a high of more than 1,000 weekly visits by spring 2021.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Twitter said, “As health professionals, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.” However, the AAP blames systemic racism for this problem, not the fact that schools closed down for two years and were particularly inaccessible for vulnerable kids. Ha. 

Learning loss is huge.

It turns out that it’s really hard to learn math and English, while squinting at your teacher on zoom on your mom’s cellphone. Shocking! 

From the Wall Street Journal:

Test scores from the first months of remote learning showed students falling months behind in reading and math. This fall, as many students returned to classrooms for the first time after 18 months of disruptions, some teachers have found the learning loss is worse than projected.

From the New York Times:

McKinsey, the consulting firm, did an analysis extrapolating from the existing research on the impact of remote learning. It projected an average of seven months of unfinished learning, assuming hybrid or fully remote learning continues off and on through January 2021. That rises to nine months on average for Latino students and 10 months for African-American students, given issues underresourced districts have with adequate access to the internet and devices and supporting teachers with remote learning.

They lost kids.

School districts have not talked to some kids since March 2020, and they HAVE NO CLUE WHERE THEY WENT. In New York City alone, they lost 150,000 kids.

Lost. Those kids might be getting homeschooling. They might have moved elsewhere. Or they might be on the street holding up college kids for their pocket change, because they are afraid to go back to school. Learning is a muscle, and if you don’t do it for two years, it is very, very hard to go back. Studies show that those kids aren’t coming back soon.

We don’t know what happened to hundreds of thousands of kids. For me, that fact is utterly heart-breaking. But since this problem is mostly a problem for urban, low income, or ELL kidsit isn’t a front page issue

Students are struggling with behaviors.

Ten year old kids no longer have the core muscle strength to sit at a desk all day and are completely overwhelmed with major challenges, so they are acting up in school. Yeah, no surprises there either. 

From Chalkbeat:

Schools across the country say they’re seeing an uptick in disruptive behaviors. Some are obvious and visible, like students trashing bathrooms, fighting over social media posts, or running out of classrooms. Others are quieter calls for help, like students putting their head down and refusing to talk.

From the New York Times:

Children also may be acting out in new ways to get that adult attention. “We actually just had a student start a fire in a school bathroom last week. THAT was a first for everyone in my building!” Nicole Hagle, who teaches seventh and eighth grade English…

It was particularly horrible for vulnerable, special ed kids like mine.

There is no data on this, because nobody is collecting information on special needs kids. Just take my word for it. Or read a couple of my newsletters to learn what it was like to have a kid with autism at home for nearly two years. 

What can you do? 

  1. Show up to your school board meetings and tell them to fix things. Here is how to be the most effective advocate for yourself and children at school board meetings.
  2. Demand parental input on how federal stimulus money is spent in your district
  3. Tell them that studies show that intensive tutoring is the best way to address learning loss
  4. Make sure that the money doesn’t get steered to athletics
  5. Also, make sure that the money isn’t diverted to pay for things that the district should be paying for anyway, like special education aides.

19 thoughts on “Remote Education Sucked. Now What?: Growing research shows kids suffered in major ways last year. What can we do to help them?

  1. “Technology gurus, who predicted that the learning through tablets was the wave of the future, were wrong.” I wrote a HS research paper on computers in education in the early 1980s. I was a teenager, but maybe still being a child in school meant I was wise beyond my years and could see people were stupid about it then and people are still stupid about it. I think it is willful. Introducing tech is really about lowering labor costs in a field that is labor intensive.

    The intensive tutoring data is good information to have in parent lead advocacy.

    I will note that teachers, like nurses, are stripped raw right now. Solutions that depend on extracting more, and unpaid, effort, involvement, performance from them will fail.

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  2. “I will note that teachers, like nurses, are stripped raw right now. Solutions that depend on extracting more, and unpaid, effort, involvement, performance from them will fail.”

    Yes, totally agree. Schools are going to have to either hire new people or send students out to private places like Sylvan or Huntington,

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  3. The athletics part is perverse. That should have been forbidden. People should go to jail for misuse of public funds.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with expanding phys ed services for kids who’ve been cooped up inside for more than a year. I’m sure there’s a need for physical therapy for most students. But not building football stadiums.

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  4. “Districts are required to tell states how they’re spending the money, but some schools are using local funding for sports projects and then replacing it with the federal relief — a maneuver that skirts reporting requirements.”

    Ugh.

    Although I’m pretty anti-sport, I’m not as anti-sport as some, because I do think it is important for some kids. In my mind, I support it less than other school-based activities (newspaper being one of my favorites, but also theater, and music). But, if it weren’t prioritized over all those other activities, it wouldn’t be bad. Can you imagine a newspaper with the funding of the football team?

    I have to admit that I wouldn’t be as disgusted if a school built a theater or a library. But, my kids have never used individualized tutoring (especially from for-profit centers like Sylvan) and need more understanding of how they benefit students. Reading the links now.

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    1. Regarding high school athletics.

      Two years ago, just before covid, our well-funded, popular, and highly supported school system had a slight funding shortfall. They also wanted to substantially increase special ed programs with a concomitant increase in funding. However, the county council refused to pony up the requisite funds. (Well-funded and highly supported has limits.)

      Our county has a somewhat weird school population. We are a mostly high income and education bunch and there are a large number of legit honors or G/T students (classified as working one or two years ahead of the state standards). My younger kid has a 504 for autism and is still in a full slate of G/T courses. (No social support b/c no IEP b/c working two years ahead of the curriculum with 504 support but that’s another story.) My older son will have taken 16 AP classes when he graduates this spring. The population in honors and G/T in the county might well be over 50%. In my kids’ middle school two thirds of the classes were above grade level because that was where the kids were working.

      At the same time, there are pockets of the county with swathes of affordable housing and so there are schools where 40-50% of the students are title one. Frequently, at these schools you will have half title one and low performing and the other half in AP/GT/Honors classes. Schools within schools, in other words. For this reason, the equity of the G/T system is up for the same passionate debates that are going on elsewhere.

      So, when they needed to find more money for the SPED programs there was a move to scale back the G/T curriculum, especially at the primary and middle school levels. As an aside, when advocates of more SPED funding (of which, NB, I am one) say that more SPED funding doesn’t take anything away from other programs, this is a lie. There are a finite amount of dollars and every one spent one place is one that isn’t spent somewhere else. This is why schools fight tooth and nail against private placements, for instance. One or two private placements often means that staffing and programs that well-serve 20 or 30 other students has to be cut. (But often this is the right thing to do!) Anyway, like I said, I am all for increased SPED funding but I really hate this sort of dishonest rhetoric used to obtain and justify it. Often the choices being made are the right choices, but let’s be honest about the price that is paid.

      But athletics. When this choice was on the table I raised the point in several venues that this was a false choice because there was all this money being wasted on (I mean, going to) athletics. Surely we could use some of that money to buttress the SPED programs and leave the popular and highly respected G/T programs alone? The response was that the athletics were viewed as crucial for getting a large body of average to below average students through school. For a non-trivial number of them sports were the only thing keeping them engaged and if you cut them then a good number of them would check out or drop out entirely.

      And we saw this during covid. There were all these stories about how remote education was failing kids but a good number of them pointed out that when sports were cancelled some of these kids felt like they had no connection to anything and dropped out. A lot of the stories about depression and suicidal ideation had an athletic component to them.

      So when our schools came back hybrid they made sure a full slate of athletics (even playing fall sprots in the spring) was a part of this. And, although I am not a big fan (or, more accurately, a fan at all) of using covid relief to increase athletic funding, don’t be too sure that in making athletics a priority that the schools don’t know what they are doing or even have misplaced goals. Although personally I hate high school athletics and the priority placed on them with the fire of a thousand suns, I have to concede that perhaps I am wrong about that impulse and that the price of deemphasizing athletics is that we will write off a bunch of students who really need to be taken care of.

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      1. Thank you. Agreed. And some of the experts told me that they were training coaches to do low key therapy and to identify kids with mental health issues. Many kids have no relationships their teachers, but they do with their coaches. I do think that money directed to PD of athletic personnel is a great use of CoViD money, but not new uniforms.

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      2. I understand the argument. I don’t agree with the way it’s usually put into practice, which may not apply to your local school. I am impressed that half of your school is allowed to access AP/GT/Honors classes. That isn’t the case in other districts.

        If someone wants to argue that sports keep some kids in school, then they should be pushing for universal access to after school sports, rather than the usual, star-centered, high school sports. Are there no-cut teams? Does the school run JV and sub-JV teams? Are there fees to participate in sports?

        I admit I am jaundiced, as our last public school district had a highly competitive sports culture. Parents started coaching their children in popular sports in elementary school, as they feared their children wouldn’t have access to the sports teams if they didn’t. There were fees to participate in sports. There were funds to cover the fees for those who couldn’t afford them, but many families who would have qualified refused to go through the humiliation of applying for charity. I happen to agree with them, as sports fees do not meet my definition of a free and appropriate public education.

        I attended public schools in my youth. The sports teams were walk-on teams. I find the argument that some students only attend schools for the sports to be suspect. Maybe some adults only see some students as good athletes, not really students.

        Aside from that, it is IMHO highly inappropriate to apply Covid relief funds, intended to combat learning loss, to long-term construction projects. It would be better to beef up the number of truant officers tracking down missing students.

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      3. Jay and Laura,

        I agree 100%. One of my 11th grader’s classmates is a football player and from a lower-income, single-parent home, and from talking to his mom, his coach fills a space in his life that a dad would normally occupy. Coaches are like a second dad or mom for a lot of kids. (I’ll add here that given that role as surrogate parents, coaches carry a MAJOR responsibility not to push kids harder than is safe or good for them.)

        Also, since a lot of kids gained weight and got deconditioned during the pandemic, PE and recess are going to be really important.

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      4. Cranberry said,

        “If someone wants to argue that sports keep some kids in school, then they should be pushing for universal access to after school sports, rather than the usual, star-centered, high school sports. Are there no-cut teams? Does the school run JV and sub-JV teams? Are there fees to participate in sports?”

        Right.

        “I find the argument that some students only attend schools for the sports to be suspect.”

        I think that probably is a thing–but isn’t it true that coaches put a lot more work into creating esprit de corps than academic subject teachers do, as well as making it clear to athletes that they need to show up in order to support their teammates? It’s not coaches’ fault if they are creating that feeling of unity and camaraderie and academic teachers aren’t.

        (Not a sports person–this is actually the first time that I’d ever thought of what it is that coaches do in terms of creating emotional investment. Interestingly, when I was in AP English as a high schooler, our teacher put a lot of effort into creating that team spirit.)

        “Aside from that, it is IMHO highly inappropriate to apply Covid relief funds, intended to combat learning loss, to long-term construction projects. It would be better to beef up the number of truant officers tracking down missing students.”

        Fair!

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  5. “Schools have wide flexibility in how they use the money but only three years to spend it, a deadline that has led some to look for quick purchases that won’t need ongoing funding after the federal money is gone.”

    Limited time for the funding does push low-investment districts/states to spend money on capital projects. Otherwise, I guess, people will want the investment once the federal money is gone, and the district won’t be willing to fund it. Kind of like the medicare expansion that only temporarily paid the cost.

    I can only hope that those districts didn’t have significant stalling of learning, either because they opened in person more quickly or their populations were less vulnerable.

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  6. Laura said, “So, those who claimed that “kids are resilient” were just plain wrong.”

    Nobody ever says “kids are resilient” when planning to do something nice for kids.

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  7. Just read an article on what our district spent the first batch of funds on and it is mostly directly covid mitigation related, nurses, counselors, health monitors, health services, extra staff for supervising lunch/hallways, covid quarantine rooms, ventilation, PPE, . . . Some of the money was used for money spent last year on those things.

    The state spent some funds on not-for-profit grants to provide mental health counseling, after school activities, . . . . (which might include tutoring services).

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  8. Laura wrote, “The American Academy of Pediatrics on Twitter said, “As health professionals, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.” However, the AAP blames systemic racism for this problem, not the fact that schools closed down for two years and were particularly inaccessible for vulnerable kids. Ha.”

    Wouldn’t systemic racism be a constant, so you can’t use it to account for a large change?

    Unless we’re blaming systemic racism for disproportionate closures of schools that serve primarily minorities…

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  9. In my media feed, there has been a ton of info on the mental health crises during the pandemic. (but as someone with a kid who experienced a mental health crisis pre-pandemic, my media preferences are already skewed heavily into the mental health topic area, so that may be why.)

    Our school also had a teen die from COVID. In our school, many non-white families really liked the virtual learning option during COVID. I attended a few school board led meetings as one of the the only white parents in the group and did a lot of listening. I’d gone intending to speak up and demand that the schools start some of the extracurricular activities during virtual learning so that the kids got at least some interaction – but I quickly realized that there were bigger issues in our community during COVID. I think families who lost a relative to COVID were much less likely to demand in person before vaccines were available. A loss of a year of learning can be eventually made up. A loss of a life cannot. Families like mine were able to work from home and practice social distancing to keep ourselves safe. Others did not have that luxury.

    My read of the AAP tweet is that they are trying to say that the mental health crisis hurts all – but disproportionately affected non-white children during COVID due to a multitude of systematic reasons – (not that racism is the cause.)

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    1. kristennel said, “A loss of a year of learning can be eventually made up.”

      May, but may not.

      This is an empirical question. We are going to see how many kids bounce back and how many kids don’t. And, unfortunately, educational and vocational setbacks in childhood and adolescence are very likely to impact adult health and life expectancy for decades to come.

      Also, most importantly, it wasn’t just a year–the loss is ongoing. A lot of kids are still gone. For them, it’s 1.5 years and counting.

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  10. I teach at a large public high school and my students seem to be doing amazingly well. Of course they missed some learning but there is always a diversity of skills that they come in with and teachers are used to working with that. They are just so happy to be back in school and I haven’t seen behavioral issues (I might just be lucky with that!). I do agree this year isn’t really a normal year either wearing masks and trying to distance and the long absences from close contacts quarantining is crazy!

    For my son I actually think he benefited from the virtual year. At school there is only so much time and attention they can give to any one child. His first grade experience before the COVID shutdown was rough! My husband and I had to spend a lot of time and attention on virtual school but we were able to give him a lot more support than they did at school. I wouldn’t want to do that forever but he grew so much in so many ways and has been able to maintain this back in school this year.

    I would love it if schools spent some of this money on nurses and substitute teachers. The shortage in subs is real and it wears on teachers to be constantly asked to cover for their colleagues in their already limited planning time.

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  11. This is a hot topic here, after students here in Auckland have been out of class – remote learning – for more than a term – with senior students having end of year exams coming up.
    The govt, has (somewhat controversially) opened schools to years 11-13 (final 3 years of school – and the exam years) – while most of the rest of Auckland is shut down (you can’t get a haircut, for example). The rationale is to give those senior students a month of in-person tuition (and support those who need to build portfolios – e.g. for art, or tech drawing) before exams.

    Principals in South Auckland (lower income area, predominantly Maori and Pasifika families) – are calling out the educational divide that is growing with online learning: resulting in student disengagement from education (working minimum wage jobs to support the family; fear of failure after no learning for 2 months), access issues (the only internet device is Mum’s phone, with mobile data which quickly runs out – libraries, where they would typically do their homework, are closed), different learning styles (collaborative learning and peer support are key for these communities), etc.

    Yes, *some* kids do well learning online. Typically these are also the kids who do well learning in class – and, actually, are self-starters who flourish in an unschooling environment as well.

    Excellent online teaching (which isn’t, actually, all that common) can provide a learning bridge for the middle group (who have access and resources, but need teaching/coaching).

    But there’s a very significant group who are *much* more dependent on good, in-person, teaching physically at school – whether they’re actually learning from their teachers or their peers, or simply benefitting from resources they don’t have at home.

    When teachers go back to school and comment on ‘how well the kids have learned remotely’ – they’re only seeing the ones who *have* returned; and those teachers aren’t at schools from the poorest school communities.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/300436905/the-lost-generation-how-some-students-are-left-behind-in-widening-covid-divide

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