Classroom Technology

Remote Learning Linked to Declines in Achievement, Enrollment

By Mark Lieberman — November 28, 2022 5 min read
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As the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, the debate over the harms of extended remote learning shows no signs of quieting down.

A report published Monday from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, found that districts that stuck with full-time remote learning for longer in the first year of the pandemic saw larger declines in enrollment in subsequent school years than districts that prioritized getting kids back in school.

The findings build on previously published research showing clear signs that remote learning was among the factors, along with poverty and racial disparities, that diminished academic achievement for millions of students in the last couple years.

Schools nationwide closed buildings and educated students at a distance during the last few months of the 2020-2021 school year. Some schools opted to start the following school year that September in person at least a couple days a week, while others kept students home for many more months, or even the entire school year.

The calculus at the time was tricky. COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire, and vaccines weren’t available to blunt the virus’ unpredictable effects and the alarming rates at which it sent people to hospitals. At the same time, many parents grew antsy over the prospect of their children remaining home indefinitely, concerned for their mental health and, for working parents, the challenges of finding affordable child care.

A growing chorus of critics—and some politicians—argue districts should have prioritized in-person learning sooner, to minimize massive gaps in educational progress. But with hundreds of thousands of people dying of COVID and many more than that sickened or hospitalized, revving up in-person school operations was no easy feat. It remains a challenge to this day, as staffing woes, disease outbreaks, and political turmoil continue to disrupt instruction.

Research shows remote learning may have exacerbated enrollment loss

To determine the role that remote learning decisions played in hastening enrollment drops, Nat Malkus, senior fellow and deputy director of education policy for the American Enterprise Institute, and Cody Christensen, a PhD student in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University, grouped more than 8,000 districts into three roughly equal categories:

1. The third of districts that offered the smallest number of hours of in-person instruction during the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Return to Learn Tracker, the American Community Survey, and USAFacts;
2. The third of districts that offered the largest number of hours of in-person instruction;
3. Those between the other two categories.

Then they adjusted for the severity of COVID outbreaks, the trend of prepandemic enrollment fluctuations, and the number of children living in the district.

Districts that spent the longest time in remote mode—more than two-thirds of the school year, on average—saw enrollment drops during the first two pandemic years that were 1.3 percentage points larger than schools that offered the most in-person learning (more than 90 percent of the school year, on average), and 0.4 percentage points larger than schools in the middle of that spectrum (60 percent of the school year, on average). For schools that stayed remote the most, the drops were steeper in the second post-pandemic year than in the first.

“We took pretty good pains to find something else that could plausibly explain the differences that we found with all the controls we had on there,” Malkus said. “Is it possible? It is. But I can’t imagine what it could be.”

Enrollment declines can mean a loss of revenue for cash-strapped districts, prompting cuts to staffing or programs that serve needier students. They were already occurring in many places before the pandemic, thanks to a long trend of falling birth rates.

Malkus’ and Christensen’s new data show those declines have steepened for many districts even two years into the pandemic. Districts with hefty financial obligations, like insurance and pension payments for current and former employees, may face a financial squeeze as a result, Malkus said.

Other factors have deepened problems for schools and students

Other studies have offered less definitive conclusions about the extent to which remote learning caused problems for public schools, and whether other factors played a primary role as well.

The Education Recovery Scorecard from Tom Kane at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Sean Reardon at Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project, published late last month, shows that within states, districts that offered more in-person learning produced better outcomes on average for students than districts that offered primarily remote learning. But that wasn’t universally true—in California, for instance, where school buildings were closed to instruction longer than average, test score decreases were smaller on average than in some other states where schools reopened more quickly.

Likewise, many districts that offered in-person learning all year saw test scores decline, the study said. And many districts that offered primarily remote learning produced better outcomes than other districts that prioritized in-person instruction.

In all, the findings are likely to bolster critics’ reservations about remote learning. Advocates for high-quality online education, though, see things slightly differently.

Michael Barbour, an associate professor of instructional design for Touro University California, believes the research around the effects of early pandemic-era schooling suggests districts’ online learning was lackluster—but can and should be improved.

“How many districts are you aware of that at any point throughout the pandemic have either finished their school year early or started late so they could provide their teachers with specific professional development on how to use online tools?” Barbour said. “I suspect if there was another pandemic two years from now, things would be pretty close to just as bad.”

Barbour blames teacher education programs for lagging far behind nationwide pedagogical trends. Many of those programs, he said, offer a single, standalone course on technology rather than infusing technology-based teaching into the curriculum “program-wide and program-deep,” Barbour said.

Schools also have a role to play in improving online learning, even if it’s only for a handful of students or a few days during a temporary local flare-up of infectious disease, he said. In countries like Singapore and China, schools have conducted “e-learning drills,” shutting down for a week during normal times to prepare for the possibility of school buildings needing to close.

“We should actually learn lessons from the past,” Barbour said.

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