Coronavirus & Education: Online Learning Will Accelerate Decline of Standards

A student uses Zoom during the coronavirus outbreak in El Masnou, north of Barcelona, Spain, April 2, 2020. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Online learning will only accelerate the decay of America’s education standards and student outcomes.

Across the country, school districts have closed classrooms once again, due to another uptick in COVID-19 cases. Online learning has become a fixture of life for students and families in 2020. Even advertisements, such as Google’s popular spot on teaching and homeschooling, are trying to depict this “new normal” as rosy — something to be celebrated, embraced. An Aviation Gin commercial, featuring Ryan Reynolds, provides a humorous outlook on online learning. Rest assured, stressed parents and aimless college students can relax because Aviation Gin sells its liquor in larger bottles.

But for many children, teenagers, and college students, the reality is less intoxicating. The long-term effects from sitting at a computer in a virtual Zoom classroom are manifold. How will these shape the educational outcomes of students in America — one, two, even ten years down the line? Are these changes irreversible?

According to a recent report from Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group, roughly 50 million K–12 public-school students have transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic. Approximately 30 percent of these students do not have adequate Internet connectivity or a device for remote learning, while 9 million students entirely lack both an Internet connection and a proper device. These students (many of whom are Native American) are simply lost to an abyss, where they neither learn online nor experience anything close to a normal school day.

McKinsey & Company sounded the alarm back in June. The report projected that, should in-class schooling return completely by early 2021, students with normal remote setups will have lost the equivalent of three to four months of in-classroom learning. Students who experience low-quality remote learning will have lost around seven to eleven months of in-classroom learning. And students who had no instruction at all over course of the pandemic will have lost close to a full year, even more, of in-classroom learning. The study also found that loss of learning affects one’s average lifetime earnings, economic productivity, and health.

Based on anecdotal evidence, college students are also struggling. Visiting my alma mater last month, I was struck by the weariness of students I encountered daily. It seemed they spent almost no time on academics outside their biweekly Zoom classes. Students who spent hours upon hours indoors, glued to their computers and phones out of necessity, were never truly engaged with their lectures, presentations, and homework. Sometimes other distractions, namely TikTok, took precedent. Meanwhile, few kids ever made the trek to campus, though it was open for outdoor studying. Given the option to return to class in person, most students opted out due to their own fears of COVID-19. I suspect, however, that there is another reason: an escalating sense of complacency. If you are someone who thinks American higher education has turned into a day camp, you will be saddened to hear that this problem has grown worse in the COVID era.

For college students in particular, the dip in education quality might only represent the tip of an iceberg — a potential mental-health crisis stemming from significant changes to school life. Results from one study hinted at measurable increases in anxiety and depression among college students, as one-third of the 30,727 students surveyed over the past summer had depression and anxiety. A study from Texas A&M University conducted surveys with over 195 students, 71 percent of whom said they experienced marked levels of anxiety since the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent changes to education experience. This being college, it’s fair to ask whether this leads to heavier drinking and drug use to alleviate anxiety and, quite frankly, boredom. It’s one thing to binge drink once a week at a party; another thing entirely to binge drink daily after hopping off a dull Zoom lecture.

The public-school system in the United States was already facing its own struggles before the pandemic. Now American colleges are providing students with lower-quality degrees, debt-financed to the tune of billions. Online learning will only accelerate this decay of America’s education standards and student outcomes; it should never become a part of our “new normal,” nor be treated as such, despite what the ads might say.

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