When Allison Harris-Turk’s third-grade daughter, Sarina, signs onto “school” every day, she is excited. Sarina is pretty self-sufficient, Harris-Turk told HuffPost, and she loves her teacher and classmates — even if she only ever sees them through a computer screen.
“She leaves every Zoom lesson feeling connected, inspired and happy,” said Harris-Turk, a working mom of three who started a Facebook group for parents navigating the highs and lows of pandemic-era education, Learning in the Time of Corona, that has nearly 17,000 members.
“Connected, inspired and happy” are not the words that most parents use to describe how their children feel after a day of remote learning, which is the current reality for millions of children across the United States. Remote learning is much more likely to be called “a bad joke” or a “disaster.” Kids are over it. Surveys from the first round of online learning last spring suggest it was a pretty big bust: Student engagement was low and many children and parents reported high levels of unhappiness.
But not all of them. For a smaller, as-yet-unquantified subset of children, the continuation of remote learning has been a blessing — allowing them to thrive in ways they may not have in the classroom.
“Online learning allows my son to focus more on his teachers and the instructional material without distractions and interruptions from classmates,” said Lindsay, whose 12-year-old son last set foot in a physical classroom on March 12. (Lindsay asked to use only her first name to preserve her son’s privacy.)
She said it has empowered him to take charge of his own learning: She and her husband both work, and all three of them sit in separate rooms, behind closed doors. They have set the expectation that their son comes to them only when he has a technology issue. Otherwise, he is on his own.
And her son has found that the format — and the online tools — actually make it easier for him to get what he needs out of his classes. For example, “he is able to use chat features to immediately ask a specific question instead of waiting for other questions to be answered and then forgetting his,” Lindsay explained.
“Online learning allows my son to focus more on his teachers and the instructional material without distractions and interruptions from classmates.”
Indeed, efficiency may be one of the biggest benefits of online learning for children and families (though the school districts that have been plagued by tech problems thus far cannot say the same).
In non-coronavirus times, teachers report that disciplining students eats up far more of the school day than they’d like. And parents like Lindsay say their children are able to be productive in a way that’s not always possible in the classroom setting. Less rigid schedules and fewer interruptions give children greater autonomy to self-pace — a change that many of them relish.
“It allows after-school hours to truly be free time for my son,” Lindsay said.
Yet educational experts caution that it is too soon to fully gauge how successful remote learning has been for some children compared to others ― and parents and teachers can’t necessarily glean more in real-time.
“Appearances don’t always indicate efficacy. So while remote learning may appear to ‘click’ for a particular child, more evidence is needed to determine whether or not it actually is,” Martin Scanlan, an associate professor with the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, told HuffPost.
Just because a student is signing on for classes and appears to be sitting through them pretty well doesn’t mean they’re necessarily thriving. Conversely, some students who appear to be really struggling with the format could actually be absorbing quite a lot. (Fidgeting, for example, is not necessarily a sign of inattention.)
Many factors that contribute to perceived remote learning success cannot be controlled, like access to high-speed internet, or age. Harris-Turk believes that a major reason why her third grader is loving online learning is simply that she is old enough to get through her days largely on her own. Conversely, Harris-Turk’s 6-year-old daughters are trying hard, but they require a lot of hand-holding throughout the day.
Some parents of middle schoolers say their children are in the remote-learning sweet spot: old enough to sit through classes and to self-pace, and at the perfect age to benefit from a sustained break in relentless social pressures.
But of course there are plenty of children who are “old enough” who still struggle with remote learning — because it is hard. There is also another key element: the ability of individual educators to make the most of a highly imperfect situation.
Parents of remote-learning high achievers, like Harris-Turk, credit so much of their children’s success to their teachers.
“Sarina’s teacher has done an incredible job creating a sense of community from the get-go … introductory class videos, a class T-shirt (to wear on every Monday) and ‘social time’ before Zoom meetings start. She includes the entire class in discussion — I have no idea how she does this! — and has made it a point to ensure the class knows she’s flexible and there for them.”