“Am I Even Real Anymore?” The Truth About Virtual Learning

“My 8-year-old was sobbing last night because she misses playing with her friends at recess, she misses her teacher, and she is worried that everyone has forgotten her. At one point, she asked me if she was even real anymore.”

This appeared in a letter that ran in the July 25th Baltimore Sun. It was written by Jenny Elliott, a Catonsville mother of elementary students. In it, Ms. Elliott tells how she and her husband have been unable to get their kids to do the virtual learning assignments her kids’ school has assigned.

“(Virtual learning) just doesn’t work for them. I can’t physically force them to stare at their devices and absorb information. We’ve yelled, we’ve begged, we’ve made a game of it…we’ve tried everything we can think of. We failed.”

One of the most poignant parts of Ms. Elliott’s letter is her feeling that everyone knows that virtual learning isn’t working for most kids, but no one wants to say so.

“I am begging someone to speak honestly about virtual learning. I have only the perspective of an elementary school parent, but I have to imagine this negatively impacts children at all levels. The communication coming (from authorities) all over the country…it feels delusional.”

Ms. Elliott expresses enormous guilt. “As a parent, I’ve had to see this every day for the last five months, and every day I feel crushing guilt that I can’t make any of it better.” She expresses gratitude for the efforts of her kids’ teachers, and feels sympathy for them. (“I love you, teachers. I am so sorry this is your reality too.”)

blog_8-6-20_computerbordom_500x338 Ms. Elliott notes that if anyone should be able to make virtual learning work, it should be her family: “…a secure living situation, two parents, food security, access to high-speed internet, access to an internet-powered device, etc.” I might add that Catonsville is in suburban Baltimore County, which has a national reputation for its substantial investments in technology over many years.

Since I have written many blogs about schools’ responses to the Covid school closures, I’ve been expecting a letter like this. Informally, my colleagues and I have been chatting to teachers and parents we know with kids in school. Almost every single one tells a story like Ms. Elliott’s. Highly educated parents, plenty of technology, tech-savvy kids, capable and hard-working teachers, all different ages, it does not seem to matter. Teachers and parents alike refer to motivated and successful students who log on and then pay no attention. The kids are  communicating on a different device with their friends, playing games, reading, whatever. There are kids who are engaged with virtual learning, but very few that we’ve heard about.

Much of the reporting about virtual learning has emphasized the lack of access to the Internet, and districts are spending billions to provide devices and improve access. There is a lot of talk about how school closures are increasing learning gaps because disadvantaged students lack access to the Internet, as though school closures are only a problem for disadvantaged students. But if Ms. Elliott is representative of many parents, and I’m sure she is, the problem is far larger than that of students who lack access to technology.

Everyone involved with schools seems to know this, but they do not want to talk about it. There seems to be a giant, unspoken pall of guilt that keeps the reality of what is happening in virtual learning from being discussed openly. Parents feel guilty because they feel deficient if they are not able to get their kids to respond to virtual learning. Teachers feel guilty because they don’t want to admit that they are not able to get more of their students to pay attention. School administrators want to be perceived to be doing something, anything, to combat the educational effects of extended school closures, so while they do talk about the need to obtain more devices and offer teachers more professional development, they do not like to talk about the kids who do have devices, but don’t do much with them. They promise that things will soon be better, with more devices, more professional development, and better lessons turning the tide. Ms. Elliott is sympathetic, but doubtful. “I appreciate those efforts and wholeheartedly believe the educational system is doing the absolute best they can…but I can’t pretend that the virtual school plans will work for our kids.”

Ms. Elliott states at the beginning of her letter that she has no solution to suggest, but she just wants the truth to be known. I have no sure-fire solutions myself. But I do know one thing. Any workable solutions there may be will have to begin with a firm understanding of what is really happening in schools using virtual learning.

In most of the U.S., opening schools in August or September should be out of the question. The rates of new Covid cases remain far too high, and no amount of social distancing inside schools can be safe for students or staff when there are so many carriers of the disease outside of schools. The only true solution, until cures or vaccines are widely available, is to return to the one thing that has worked throughout the world: mandating universal use of masks, shutting down businesses that put people close to each other, and so on. This is the only thing that saved China and South Korea and Italy and Spain and New York City, and it is the only solution now. The faster we return to what works, the sooner we can fully open schools, and then start the long process of healing the terrible damage being done to our children’s learning.

I am not suggesting giving up on virtual learning. If schools will be closed for a long time, it is all we have. But I am pessimistic about trying to fix the current approach to virtual learning. I think we could use all those computers and educators online to much greater effort by providing online tutoring to individuals and small groups, for example, rather than trying to create a classroom community out of children working from home. Perhaps there are ways other than tutoring to use online instruction effectively, but I do not know them. In any case, we need immediate investment in development and evaluation to find the most effective and cost-effective solutions possible, while we wait for a safe time to open schools. We’ll all get through this, one way or the other, but in order to minimize the negative impact on student learning, let’s start with the truth, and then build and use the evidence of what works.

 This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

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