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The Impact of Distance Learning on Kids

Father helping son virtually learn

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

After almost a year and a half of disrupted schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most students will be heading back to traditional in-person school in the fall of 2021. However, many parents wonder what the impact of distance and/or hybrid learning has been on their kids.

To varying degrees, most kids across the country (and the world) spent significant chunks of time doing school from home. Research and anecdotal reports tell us that many kids faced significant challenges.

We don't yet fully know what the lasting impacts of distance learning may be. However, ongoing research offers insights on what the effects of learning via a computer at home may be for various groups of students.

The Legacy of Distance Learning

It's important to remember the extraordinary challenges many students faced during distance learning, including family illness (and in some cases the death of loved ones), job loss, financial insecurity, chronic stress and uncertainly, loss of normalcy, and losing out on activities and social connections.

Schools, teachers, parents, and students alike all had to scramble to figure out how to "do" school in quarantine. So, any success with schooling during the stresses of living through a pandemic should be celebrated.

That said, remote learning has taken a huge toll on many kids and their families. Many parents left jobs to help supervise their children's learning. Other families had to leave their kids at home unsupervised while they went to work. Even many students who had parents who could be home with them struggled with the demands and expectations of online school.

An Uneven Playing Field

Disparities in digital literacy and online access among students, teachers, and parents meant that some kids faced big obstacles to just signing on to class.

For example, many kids didn't have Wi-Fi or a computer—or had to share one device among multiple kids or parents. The fear is that these disparities will exacerbate the learning gap among disadvantaged students.

Students from traditionally underserved communities, those with learning disabilities, bilingual learners, and those with mental health conditions had unique challenges and found less access and support during remote learning.

Some parents were less well-equipped to help their kids with school than others. Many families needed older kids to take on more household responsibilities or find jobs.

To be sure, some students thrived with online learning, particularly those who are independent, self-directed learners. However, the data is clear that many have struggled—and have been left behind. Many kids who did not flourish under distance learning have experienced a variety of academic, mental health, and physical effects.

For some students, these issues may be short-term concerns. Others may continue to be affected long after they reenter physical classrooms.

These affects appear to go all the way from preschoolers to college students, with stark disparities seen based on race, class, income, learning difference, and other factors. One study found that while 13% of university students overall were delaying graduation plans, this pandemic-inspired shift was 55% more likely in low-income students. The worry is that these students may never get the chance to finish their educations.

My Family's Experience

As the mother of five school-age children, I can attest to the vastly different ways different kids experienced distance learning. My kids ran the gamut of nearly complete disengagement to doing really well, but none of them enjoyed virtual school or thought they learned as well as they did in "real school." One of my boys frequently pointed out that there was "no school," just being at home looking at a screen. "I'm not learning anything...so why bother?"

"It's too easy to just shut the computer," said another of my boys. He tended to opt out whenever he wasn't sure what to do or when his frustration level got too high—problems that cropped up frequently.

I spent my days trying to fit my work in between shuttling from kid to kid, hoping to find them engaged in learning, but often discovering them distracted, frustrated, having tech issues, wanting a snack, or sleeping. My offers of schoolwork help were often rebuffed—or ended in tears.

The temptation to switch to YouTube when they were supposed to be in class or doing schoolwork was another problem for several of my kids—and many of their friends.

I often wondered if my efforts were even worth it, especially as I was often up at 2 a.m. trying to get my own job done. We all felt like swimmers treading water but never reaching the other side. Despite my daily attention—and my kids really trying—they often had more Fs than I could count. It felt almost cruel to even check their progress, as we were usually confronted with an unyielding, unsurmountable stream of missing assignments.

Impact on Academics

Children raising hands in classroom

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

Despite my kids' many wonderful teachers' best intentions, technical, practical, and social issues often got in the way of learning. For example, spotty Wi-Fi or other tech problems sometimes caused difficulty signing on (for them, their teacher, or other students) or disrupted a teacher's presentations. It could be hard to get teacher help when needed, too. Most schoolwork was done without ready access to a teacher—and their next office hours might be hours or days away.

Issues of Engagement

Many students (often including my kids) chose to keep their cameras off, which means everyone was looking at a grid of blank rectangles rather than the faces of their classmates.

"I don't even know what any of the kids look like, let alone their names," complained one of my middle schoolers. My kids found this isolating—and felt like it would be "weird" to turn on their own camera when most other kids did not. One of my boys almost never even spoke in a class all year long, something one of his teachers described as "ghosting" her class.

I often asked my kids, "Are you in class? Why can't I hear your teacher?" when I'd check on them during live classes. Sometimes, they had the volume super low. Often, they were supposed to be small groups for discussion, but no one was talking. They didn't think their teachers had any idea, but for the most part, the kids just silently waited out their time rather than talk—unless the teacher happened to pop in.

Evaluating Learning

Essentially, remote learning made it very hard for teachers—despite their valiant efforts—to know what kids were really doing or learning. In fact, my third-grader didn't even get a direct assessment in reading for over a year.

So, how much did kids really learn (or not learn) during distance learning? It's important to look at how to help the kids that fell behind. These are questions that educators, researchers, and parents are now grappling with.

However, it is clear that students overall had far fewer direct instructional hours, less access to academic support, and were burdened with a great responsibility for managing their own learning. As noted previously, some kids excelled under these conditions, but many more did not.

Ultimately, despite teacher and parent efforts, the kids in need of the most academic support ended up being the ones who were most shortchanged.

Impact on Mental Health

Three children with tablets in front of their face

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

The mental health toll of distance learning has been well documented. Childhood rates of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, rose sharply while kids were out of school.

And many of those with preexisting mental health conditions reported a worsening of symptoms. Feelings of isolation (as well as suicide risk) also increased, which was a big reason many educators, doctors, and parents called for a return to in-person schooling.

If you or your child are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Many teachers also lamented the difficulty in effectively engaging students via pixels.

"In some classes, the ability to build community and meaningful relationships have been terribly stunted," reports Gregory Garcia, Jr., a veteran Portland, Oregon, high school social studies teacher and curriculum designer. Garcia also praised the creativity of many of his colleagues and the resilience of his students who accomplished so much despite the challenges.

Gregory Garcia, Jr.

[This is] hands down one of the most unique school years in my career and quite possibly the worst year in the history of American education.

— Gregory Garcia, Jr.

"From a psychological perspective, there are so many features of basic human communication such as voice inflection, body language, facial expressions, that are forcibly removed from the landscape of Zoom Meetings or Google Meet sessions," Garcia explains. "Consequently, it is not uncommon for classes to be voids of silence."

Loss of connection with peers and reduced social interactions also hit many kids hard. Students flocked to social media and gaming to find community, hope, and social interaction, but even those outlets left many feeling alone.

Alternatively, for some kids, such as those with social anxiety or who experienced bullying or discrimination (like racism or transphobia), remote learning was a relief. For many of these students, e-school allowed them to finally focus on academics.

Impact on Physical Health

Little boy playing video games

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

The reality of learning from home meant that kids spent much more time indoors and on screens. Time out in the real world—or in P.E. class or playing sports—was greatly restricted.

Studies show that this shift caused big drops in exercise. Many kids also experienced weight gain, headaches, poor sleep, and eyestrain from too much screen time, and increased exposure to domestic violence.

If your child has had pandemic-related adverse health effects, such as weight gain, know they're not alone. A new term has even been coined to describe this phenomenon: "covibesity."

A comprehensive study found that a large segment of kids (and adults) across the world gained weight due to being confined at home and the stress of living in a pandemic. Again, students from low-income families fared the worst.

The same study reported steep declines in physical activity, with only about 10% of kids engaging in organized sports. Lockdown restrictions meant some kids could barely even leave their homes.

Studies also showed big upticks in consumption of processed, sugary, and salty foods—and decreases in healthier options like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Many kids also went hungry. In fact, while around 12% of kids experienced food insecurity pre-pandemic, that rate skyrocketed to an estimated 38%. While many school districts did their best to continue to provide free and reduced-price meals to students in need, lots of kids faced hunger during the school closures.

Doctors also worry about that the disruption to regular healthcare during the pandemic. Many kids have missed their well-child visits and routine vaccines due to fear of catching COVID-19. Being out of school meant that school nurses were not available to students and keeping vaccines up-to-date was not required for school attendance.

Back to In-Person School

Three children in front of their computer with their mother in the background

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

Thankfully, due to quarantine measures and increasing vaccine rates, we are getting closer to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most school districts plan to provide traditional schooling this fall. Educators are now focused on planning for a safe return to school.

Efforts are also being considered to help students who may have fallen through the cracks during online school. Many parents—and students—are worried about how kids will catch up.

Support for academic, socioemotional, and socioeconomic concerns are all imperative. As a parent, take stock of your child's overall well-being to determine what areas they may need help with.

Many school districts are offering summer school programs, tutoring, and counseling (or can connect you with available resources for these services), as well as access to food. Reach out to your local school to access local information and connect to any services your child may need.

Strategies That Can Help

Know that many, many kids struggled, at varying degrees, during distance learning, whether academically, emotionally, or physically. Your child and family are not alone—and not to blame.

Also, know that setbacks during online school don't mean your child can't turn things around. We all got through an unprecedented educational experiment. So, even if your child did just "OK" (or excelled or didn't do well at all) during online school, take a moment to celebrate.

Research shows that focusing on children's strengths, interests, and passions can help them thrive. Think about what went well for them during online school.

For example, maybe they fell behind in their classes but they read dozens of books or learned to cook or ask their teachers for help. Or maybe they failed science but they excelled in social studies. Be sure to remind them of those successes and to praise their efforts as well as results.

If you're worried your child fell behind in school, focus on reading. Research shows that simply reading to your kids, listening to audiobooks, or having them read to themselves provides huge educational benefits—and predicts academic success later in life.

Additionally, if there are certain subjects that your child needs extra support in, talk to their teacher about making a plan to get them back on track.

Talk to your kids about how they're feeling, what their worries are, what they feel went well in school, and where they can improve. Let them know you are there for them and that it's normal and OK to need help. Also, be sure to share that they are not alone if they struggled during distance learning.

If your child is struggling with their mental health, seek help from their pediatrician, school counselor, and/or a therapist. Also, help kids who may be feeling isolated to connect (or reconnect) to friends.

For those kids who have had limited social interactions, slowly increase their exposure (safely, of course) to more people, say at the grocery store or around your neighborhood, so that they can build back their social skills and post-pandemic comfort level—and return to school with confidence.

Aim to help your child get more physical activity now that lockdowns have been lifted. If weight gain or less healthy eating habits became the norm during the pandemic, seek help from a nutritionist. Even small shifts toward a more balanced diet can offer big health rewards.

A Word From Verywell

While research on the impact of distance learning on kids during the pandemic may feel a bit grim, try not to lose sight of the fact that we have much to be hopeful and grateful for. Students stayed home to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.

Their sacrifices are now paying off as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic—and kids are going back to school. So, any learning they accomplished, the resilience they showed, and the maturity they gained should be cheered as big wins.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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