- The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of about 95 percent of students around the world.
- Remote learning is associated with negative efects on social, emotional, physical, and mental health.
- Remote learning is also associated with lower scores on tests of academic abilities.
- Parents and caregivers should carefully weigh the risks and benefits of remote versus in-person learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of around 95 percent of the students in the world, representing the largest disruption to education in history, according to a report from the United Nations.
As children are returning to school this Fall and the Delta variant continues to spread, many parents may be wondering whether schools should continue to offer a remote learning option, and if so, whether they should choose that option for their child. In order to address these concerns, it may help to take a look at the emerging research on the psychological and educational impact of remote learning versus in-person learning.
Impact on mental and physical health
Research clearly indicates that remote learning (or even a hybrid model) has significant negative effects on children and parents' mental, emotional, social, and physical health. A study conducted by the CDC included 1,561 parents of children aged 5 to 12 years who were surveyed from October to November 2020. According to the research, parents of children who were attending school virtually were more likely to report poorer mental and emotional health, reduced physical activity, and less time spent with friends (either virtually or in-person) compared to children who were attending school in-person.
Parents of children in virtual schooling were also more likely to report loss of work, emotional distress, difficulty sleeping, and problems with finding childcare. The findings suggest that in-person learning may be critical to the physical and mental health of many families.
In addition to providing education, schools also provide many services to families, including free or reduced-cost meals, social support, opportunities for physical activity, and mental health services. Virtual schooling places an undue burden on parents, who do not have the training, time, or resources to provide all of the services that a school can offer.
Impact on academic achievement
A large study from the Netherlands found lower standardized test scores in math, reading, and spelling following remote learning during the pandemic. On average, students' scores were three percentile points lower following the pandemic. Importantly, the effect was disproportionately greater in children from less-educated families (the size of the learning loss being up to 60 percent greater for these children).
The study involved 15 percent of Dutch primary schools and included students aged 8 to 11 years. The researchers examined the effect of an eight-week period of virtual schooling due to the pandemic by comparing test scores from 2020 to test scores from the three previous years.
The results suggest a lack of learning during this time or even a regression—that is, a loss of academic skills. The researchers point out that the Netherlands is a best-case scenario, as the the country had only a short period of school closure (eight weeks), high rates of internet access among children, and school funding that is relatively equitable. In other words, the results may be more dramatic in countries like the U.S., where school closures were typically longer and technological access is more limited.
Although it is difficult to predict the long-term mental and emotional toll of remote learning, the World Bank estimates that school closures during the pandemic will result in a loss of between 0.3 to 1.1 years of schooling, when adjusted for the quality of education, and between $6,680 to $32,397 in lost lifetime earnings per student (in present value terms).
How to handle the schooling decision as a parent or caregiver
Although research suggests that a return to in-person learning is important for children’s academic achievement and physical and mental health, every family needs to make the decision based on their own unique circumstances. Some families may choose remote learning, and they should be supported in this choice.
However, if you do decide return to in-person learning, and it is an option in your area, how should you cope with your own and your child’s anxiety about returning to school?
The following strategies may help you and your child to transition successfully back to in-person learning:
1. Research the school’s mitigation strategies and create a book, picture, or visual aid to explain these strategies to your child. Create a “visual schedule” for your child with words and pictures that explains when they will wear their mask, when they will wash their hands, and other procedures
2. Talk to your child about how they are feeling about the upcoming school year. Recognize that their feelings may be complicated (for example, they may feel both excited and nervous) and different from your own feelings.
3. Explain to your child how you are feeling and what coping strategies you will be using to help yourself feel better (“I am feeling a little nervous about you returning to school since it’s been so long. When I start feeling nervous, I’m going to do some deep breathing and remind myself of everything your school is doing to keep you safe.”)
4. Validate your child’s worry and encourage them to face their fears (“I know you feel nervous about this, but I also know that you are so brave and can handle this!”)
5. Gradually (and safely) engage in activities and situations that might cause anxiety for you and/or your child before going back to school. Help your child to use coping strategies to address any anxiety that comes up during these activities. For example, engage in outdoor, socially distanced play dates before school starts.
6. Decide on the best way to separate from your child on the first day back and talk through (or write out) the plan. Stay calm and relaxed during the transition, as your child will likely reflect this feeling.
7. Drive by the school a few times prior to the first day. Meet the teacher or other children in the school, if possible.
8. Do not hesitate to talk with a mental health professional if you or your child are struggling with the transition. This is a difficult, unprecedented time, and many parents and children may need additional support.
Azevedo, J. P., Hasan, A., Goldemberg, D., Geven, K., & Iqbal, S. A. (2021). Simulating the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on schooling and learning outcomes: A set of global estimates. The World Bank Research Observer, 36(1), 1-40.
Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(17).
Verlenden, J. V., Pampati, S., Rasberry, C. N., Liddon, N., Hertz, M., Kilmer, G., ... & Ethier, K. A. (2021). Association of children’s mode of school instruction with child and parent experiences and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic—COVID experiences Survey, United States, October 8–November 13, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 70(11), 369.