Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times

An 11 year-old works at a desk at his family's home, persisting through the challenges of virtual learning.

April 12, 2021

Growing Up in a Pandemic: Struggles With Virtual Learning and the Widening Educational Achievement Gap

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As vaccine rollout accelerates around the country, students and educators alike have high hopes for the return of in-person instruction. Even so, many are concerned about the impact of pandemic isolation on their children’s learning, and data suggests these concerns may be well-founded. 

Although some parents have found that remote learning is a good fit for their children due to convenience or health issues, remote learning has hurt many students’ learning, emotional health and social development. 

According to Prof. Tamar Kushnir, human development and cognitive science, children go through major developmental milestones as they develop identity, independence and language and social skills all right at the age when they would be starting school. 

The isolation of the pandemic has hindered children’s progress through these developmental stages in addition to complicating students’ day-to-day learning of reading, writing and math, according to Kushnir. 

Kushnir said that while there is not yet published research on the impact of isolation on children’s learning and social skills, early indications show that virtual learning is not as effective as the environment of in-person education. 

“The best way for children to learn is in the real world, learning from play and learning from social interaction.” Kushnir said. “Sitting in front of a screen is not a way to make children learn and keep their attention, and children have lost a lot of ground in their learning.” 

Kushnir was more concerned about the impact on social development than any hindrance in language development. She said that while studies cannot be generalized for everyone, as long as parents are spending time talking and reading to their children, children will develop language perfectly normally.  

“Socialization requires peer interaction, and that is what [children] are missing,” Kushnir said. “Maybe their language gains will be the same, but social development [may be] falling behind for a while.” 

However, lower-income families can often face a higher barrier to academic resources due to social isolation, further exacerbating the socioeconomic gap in childhood education.

Prof. Gary Evans, human development and environmental analysis, said that this gap is partially due to the opportunities children have outside of school, particularly during the summer months. 

“At the end of the school year there is still a gap, but it is a lot smaller, and then in the fall, the gap is a lot bigger.” Evans said. 

With greater access to summer camps, enrichment activities and sports, higher-income families are able to continue their children’s education over the summer with opportunities that are inaccessible for many lower-income families, according to Evans. 

Evans said this divide could be even worse following the pandemic, because families with means had far more resources to cope with the setbacks of virtual instruction. “Now you’ve got the bottom falling and the top increasing — and the gap gets bigger.” Evans said. 

Despite these challenges, Kushnir and Evans agreed that pandemic isolation would likely not hurt most students academically in the long run. 

“There is absolutely no reason to push kids at age six to read, write, master math — there is no research that says it makes them more successful.” Kushnir said. “For the average child, they will catch up, if the system will support them as they go.”

Kushnir said that it is more important to focus on being compassionate, and helping reduce stress for children by making sure they feel loved and supported rather than focusing on lost academic progress.

While Evans said that distanced learning likely wouldn’t create learning disabilities, he said that isolation could make education more difficult for children with pre-existing learning disabilities because of a lack of access to specialized instruction and assistance. 

“If you already had some of these disabilities, [isolation] would make it more difficult to catch up, so to speak, or learn optimal strategies to navigate.” Evans said.

Evans also pointed out that while many are feeling lonely due to not having enough contact with other people, families in crowded conditions face the opposite struggle. 

“When you don’t have enough space, when you are forced to interact with people more than you want to … it can lead to [children] socially withdrawing,” Evans said. “Ironically, even though there are more people around, you actually are more isolated.” 

This social withdrawal is concerning in the long run because it might lead to difficulties accessing social support and developing or maintaining mechanisms to cope with stress later on in life, Evans said. 

Problems like this are not easy to solve, but Evans said that the most important thing is for parents and caregivers to support their children as best they can in this troubled time. 

“I think one of the [important] things is just, to the extent [caregivers] are able to, being responsive, letting the child know that when they are feeling something or something is upsetting, that someone is there to respond to them,” Evans said.

Evans added that physical activity and getting outside are important ways to cope with stress. 

Kushnir emphasized that this is not a time to trivialize the massive changes children have gone through as a result of the pandemic. 

“If ever there was a time … not to blame yourself, this is the time” Kushnir said. “This isn’t going to be forever. I would tell a child the same thing … We can find good things in the meantime and eventually this will pass.”