The fallout from distance learning


COVID-19’s impact on U.S education

First of a three-part story

Editor’s note: This three-part series examines the pros and cons of distance learning in the Black community and what must be done to help those who have fallen behind to catch up.

Students across the country have eagerly traded long hours in classrooms, virtual or physical, in exchange for swimming pools and extended days in the sun. These youngsters are likely oblivious to a pressing question about the post-COVID world: In an already highly disparate educational landscape, how has more than a year of distance learning impacted young people?

In March of 2020, both K-12 schools and colleges, and universities alike abruptly told students not to return to campus. More than a year later, many students still have yet to set foot inside of a classroom.

Related Story: Experts urge quickest possible return to in-person learning

A handful of educators and school leaders have revealed to the MSR what it took to forge through more than a year of distance learning, including the struggles and triumphs associated with that feat, as well as what will be required to get students back on track.

Erskine Simmons, a Tuscaloosa City Schools Board of Education member from Alabama, described as “almost impossible” obtaining the critical technology students suddenly needed in March of 2020 to be successful at learning from home. But the conclusion he shared is a sentiment that reflects a story of “survival” repeated across the nation: “We were able to get it done.”

Prior to the pandemic, Tuscaloosa schools were already well on their way to fulfilling a “one to one” initiative, which will ensure every child in the system has access to some kind of electronic device regardless of grade level, although not all districts in the country were so fortunate.

Education Week reported in September that despite the fact that 73% of the 100 largest U.S. school districts had chosen online learning as the only instructional option in the fall, many students remained without the basic technology necessary for this mode of learning as thousands of laptops remained on backorder due to supply chain shortages.

Photo by Niara Savage Tiff Nunn-Clark

Equipping students with the technology they needed in order to learn was only the beginning of what Edairra McCalister, a high school English teacher working in the Osseo Area School District in Minnesota, called her “most tumultuous year as an educator.” Students in the district started the year virtually, then returned to in-person learning on a schedule of rotating cohorts that allowed each student to be in the building once a week.

But the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic meant it was hard for both students and teachers to adapt when the learning environment was constantly in limbo. “Adapting, I was like, what is that?” said McCalister. “Because every time we would get into a new routine, we’d be kicked back to completely distance.

“There were so many moving parts. It’s hard to say I successfully adapted—more so like I survived. It was literally surviving. How do you be great in survival mode?”

Teaching in the middle of the pandemic and in the suburbs of Minneapolis was intensified further when the area became a flashpoint for the racial justice demonstrations that followed the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. 

“There were a lot of students of color who literally lived in the same neighborhood where we saw Daunte Wright killed, and a lot of protests, and we expect them to show up the next day,” McCalister said.

Attendance, as well as identifying how to effectively verify a student’s virtual presence, proved to be major obstacles for districts around the country. “You can sign in, show your face and be in attendance, but were you actually there?” Simmons questioned.

Janet Scurlock, a fourth grade teacher in the St. Louis Public School District, said that during distance learning students quickly discovered they could display an image in the virtual classroom, “mute their mic and go on about their business,” and be marked present without actually being there. Popular daytime pastimes for students supposedly learning remotely included watching television, cooking, and playing video games. One educator put it plainly: “For students, attendance was a joke.”

But for students who were present, virtual learning also provided an unprecedented window into their at-home lives. Elementary school students were left home alone and unsupervised in some cases while parents were forced to work outside the home through the pandemic. Some students were seen on-camera looking after younger siblings with babies in their laps, while others bore the responsibility of taking care of sick or elderly relatives. 

“In-school learning, for some of our children who are most at risk, really provides a shelter. It creates a diversion from the things they have going on, distractions happening in their homes,” Simmons added, highlighting an important role of schools in communities around the country.  

For Tiff Nunn-Clark, a teacher in the Riverview Gardens School District in Missouri, welcoming her kindergarteners to the building for the first time after teaching virtually was emotional. “Just to see kids that I’ve never seen in person before brought tears to our eyes,” Clark said.

Having students back in physical classrooms was a welcome change for many educators, but as Nunn-Clark and other teachers know well, the academic and mental health-related obstacles facing both students and teachers didn’t fully fade when schools reopened their doors. Many educators acknowledged that distance learning has undoubtedly taken a toll on students’ academic progress.

“Mentally, their social skills are going to be totally different,” Nunn-Clark said of her kindergarteners, some of the youngest students to be impacted by virtual learning. “When we do come back in the classroom full-time, they have to learn social skills all over. Which plays into behavior, which plays into academics. It’s all tied in together.”

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