Virtual Learning Might Be the Best Thing to Happen to Schools

Countless reports warn that distance learning will negatively affect children. But many kids and institutions have changed in ways that should be preserved post-pandemic.

Child and mother working from their laptops at home
Many children may end up more resilient on the other side of the pandemic. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / The Washington Post / Getty)

As Jennifer Gomez prepared for an investor pitch, the 34-year-old Brooklyn native was primarily concerned with setting up her first grader, Olivia, for school and keeping her 3-year-old, Valentina, occupied. The pitch was a significant opportunity for her start-up, and she was afraid her kids would act out when it was most inconvenient. As Olivia’s eyes tracked her mother scurrying to get organized, she precociously grabbed her hand and reassured her, “Mommy, we are a team, remember?” Olivia then pulled her sister aside for a talk. She gave Valentina a special assignment: to play with some paper, crayons, and Play-Doh. Olivia then figured out class on her own and was proud to have done so. Gomez recounts that this was one of the rare moments when she felt deep gratitude for remote school. “I realized we were all learning from each other’s resilience and compassion,” she told me over email. “This wasn’t something Olivia had learned in a classroom, but from proximity to her family and watching us all figure it out together.”

Much has been written about the toll the pandemic is taking on families and educators. Countless op-eds and scientific reports warn that distance learning will negatively affect children for many years to come. Parents are suffering through work and child care. Teachers have either taken on increased responsibilities (without increased pay) by moving their classroom online, or risked exposure to the coronavirus in places where in-person learning continues.

Students, for their part, will likely have lost months of learning by the time they fully return to physical classrooms. Most kids yearn for social connection with their peers and teachers, and the pandemic has caused many of them to fall behind. Some lack stable internet access, and have resorted to sitting in the parking lot of their school to use the high-speed Wi-Fi needed for Zoom conferencing. Barred access to in-person schooling can put many American children at risk of going without meals or spending increased time with abusive relatives. The general public has begun to acknowledge what educational research confirms: These issues are the result of extreme inequality in the United States, chronic divestment from public education, and insufficient social safety nets. Remote learning has exacerbated the institutional harms that were already being inflicted on many families.

Yet experiences like Gomez’s show that our tenuous experiment with virtual schooling could have a silver lining: Some children may end up being more resilient on the other side of the pandemic. Innovating on the fly, navigating uncertainty, maintaining hope for the future, communicating effectively, and relying on networks of people and community resources to overcome challenges are just some of the skills kids are developing during this time. These types of competencies—ones that children of color have typically brought to the classroom with little acknowledgment—are part of what Tara Yosso, an education professor at UC Riverside, calls “community cultural wealth.” The pandemic could usher in an increased appreciation for what students who have faced significant hardships have had to master throughout their life: developing strengths from dealing with an untenable set of challenges.

For many students, learning from home can also be healthier than in-person schooling. Deepening one’s bond with parents, for instance, sets foundations for trust and empathy, bolsters cognitive development, and even increases one’s life expectancy. Gary Foster, a 33-year-old K–5 teacher’s assistant in Los Angeles, told me that spending more time with his 6-year-old daughter, Allison, means daily lunch dates and working together to design a space in their house dedicated to her learning. “I work far from home, and I leave home before anyone else even wakes up,” Foster explained. “So Allison wouldn’t see me until … oftentimes, 10 p.m., [because] I have night classes.” Another mother I corresponded with, Amy Light from Boston, said that her 8-year-old daughter “enjoys the nonstop snacks, being in her own room, hanging with her gecko, going to the bathroom when she wants, [and] chatting with me during lunch and breaks.” Research suggests that strengthened attachment to parents actually increases children’s self-reliance later in life, and both Light and Gomez observed that being in closer proximity to their kids made their daughters more independent.

And while many students’ mental health has suffered during the past year, as the educator Erika Christakis has written, schools significantly contributed to their anxiety and depression even before the pandemic. A recent survey revealed that 43 percent of parents agreed with the statement “My child is less stressed now than before school closed.” (Just 29 percent of respondents disagreed, while the rest were neutral.) Parents I spoke with expressed that teachers are more empathetic and attuned to students’ mental health, even spending time in class to unpack their feelings—something they hoped will continue once kids return to campus.

When Lauren Mason Carris, a mother of three in Salt Lake City, asked her children (ages 6, 11, and 17) why they preferred remote learning, a deciding factor for them was the food. “Public-school food options are an embarrassment to our public health,” she told me. “And the work required to [pack] quality meals at 6:30 a.m. [was] taxing for everyone.” Unfortunately, many low-income children rely on school-nutrition programs, and the ability to cook healthy lunches and chat with one’s child during the day is a privilege afforded to full-time caregivers and people whose jobs allow them to work from home. More opportunities for quality time for working-class families would in many cases improve the well-being of their children. This underscores the need for living wages, school schedules that are more in sync with work schedules, expanded child-income programs such as the newly approved child tax credit in the American Rescue Plan, the eradication of food deserts, and flexible paid parental leave at all levels of the workforce.

In some instances, distance learning has created more equitable conditions for marginalized students. Black mothers, for example, have posted stories on social media about intercepting racism directed at their children on video calls. Parents now have a front-row view of how teachers treat their children, and kids can learn from their parents how to advocate for themselves in a way they wouldn’t be able to if they had to navigate instances of discrimination alone.

Many students with disabilities also benefit from the accommodations afforded by virtual learning. Parents of neurodivergent children, for instance, can limit sensory overload and take direction from their kids’ evolving interest in subjects. Students with difficulties concentrating can rewatch recorded lessons on half-speed, pausing as needed. Disability advocates have long pushed for tech-enabled learning accommodations, only to be told that they would be too difficult to implement. That’s now been proved false.

Ed-tech may be here to stay if it’s able to demonstrate its long-term usefulness. Still, many will rightfully argue that an all-encompassing infiltration of Big Tech comes at the cost of privacy and the normalization of a surveillance state. Moreover, tech companies cannot code us out of a failing education system. I have written before about the threats facing young people in our techno-chauvinist society. However, the parents I spoke with said classrooms seem more organized, and students across backgrounds have developed a deeper tech literacy in just a short amount of time.

The past year has been an era of universal re-imagination, and Americans are now planning to transition into a post-pandemic world. Things will never be “normal” again, but “normal” also did not work for the large majority of people. Through the turmoil, many children have spent more time outdoors, which is crucial for healthy development. Schools have implemented flipped classrooms, in which teachers lecture less and children collaborate more. This moment has proved that educating children (and even admitting them to college) does not have to revolve around the regressive instruments of standardized testing. Educators have learned to use new tools to meet children where they are, emotionally and intellectually, rather than applying one-size-fits-all models. All of these advances can persist with in-person schooling. Thanks to distance learning, children will also benefit from increased accessibility to virtual schooling options when personal circumstances take them away from physical classrooms in the future. And schools can continue to promote a pedagogy that tends to children’s social and emotional needs even after this period of collective mourning has passed.

For generations, education scholars have bemoaned the slow pace of progress in public schooling. Americans now have a once-in-a-century opportunity to seize the benefits from a burst of radical shifts. Our ability to innovate quickly in crisis could transform into enduring political advocacy for the most vulnerable families. Having a closer view of your child’s development is a gift of this unique point in history, but it should be a right. “It’s really been a blessing for me to witness [Olivia] mature in this time … She has just grown much more conscious as a person, much more empathetic,” Gomez said. “From home, children can catch an inspiring glimpse into the world of adulthood and contribute more meaningfully to the household … I see her setting goals in ways she wasn’t before.” America can also set goals in ways it hasn’t before, and implement the lessons learned from virtual schooling as we embark on constructing a more equitable post-pandemic society.