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The long shadow of remote learning

girafchik123/Getty Images illustration of e-learning conference video call on computer concept
REMOTE: Data from the nation’s report card shows that from 2019 to 2022, not a single state improved its test scores for math, and reading scores declined in more than half of all states.
In rural America, no pandemic topic was more hotly contested than remote learning and masks in school. Now we know how far behind kids really are — but what can you do about it?

It’s no secret young people struggled during the pandemic. But new data from the nation’s report card confirms what we suspected all along: Despite good intentions and best efforts, remote learning didn’t work.

The pandemic had a devastating impact on students, far beyond remote learning. Students were daily traumatized by uncertainty in their homes and schools, illness and death of loved ones, and constant upheaval of schedules. It’s a lot for any kid, from kindergarten to college.

Combine all that with high levels of rural poverty, and we could be looking at a significant rural regression in communities that can’t afford a step backward.

The national report card, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, came out this month and was the first to tabulate nationwide test scores since 2019 — effectively, a report card on remote learning. It showed a 20-year regression in math and reading over the past three years, with the steepest math declines ever recorded. The assessment covered fourth and eighth graders, and math scores for eighth graders fell in nearly every state. Just 26% of eighth graders were proficient, down from 34% in 2019.

That makes sense; families are more likely to supplement reading at home. But nobody’s doing bedtime equations. And as we learned in our house, math is inherently hard to teach (and understand) online.

Reading scores declined in more than half of all states, and no state showed sizable improvement in reading.

It would be easy to latch onto these results and conclude it’s the fault of officials who closed schools too long. But the state-by-state numbers don’t vindicate anyone’s decision.

Take California and Florida. Like Illinois, California had some of the most restrictive and longest-lasting remote learning timelines in the country. Florida was the opposite. Yet test scores from both states were similar. California eighth grade proficiency levels came in at 23% in math and 30% in reading. Florida eighth graders scored 23% in math and 29% in reading. And Illinois eighth grade proficiency levels were 27% in math and 32% in reading.

Beyond the tests

But those are just tests. Teachers know, right at the ground level, where their students are struggling.

One math teacher at a rural high school told me recently that her students struggle to keep trying when something gets hard. She can teach a concept, then teach another lesson where they take the first concept and apply a second one, and her students all but throw their hands in the air. It’s hard. Instead of thinking critically and attempting to figure it out, their reflex is to quit and have her walk them through it.

After years of survival and low expectations, they’ve lost a certain level of resilience in the face of difficulty. They’ve lost some grit.

We wrote a lot back in 2020 about farm kids during the pandemic, and how they pivoted to help out more at home. My husband had all three of our kids dragging calves out of the mud during calving and was not sad when his 15-year-old son was still home during planting. Other farm kids got more quality time with grandparents. All true. All good things.

But a lot of rural and small-town kids went home to houses where Mom and Dad still had to go to work, or they lost their jobs, or grandparents got sick. Kids lost out on sports and athletic scholarships. They lost motivation. They didn’t always have help with remote learning, or didn’t have computers, or didn’t have an internet connection. Rural schools scrambled to get Chromebooks for everybody, and internet hot spots for some.

For kids with already-chaotic homes, school was the one place that was constant and scheduled and dependable. And they lost it.

Where to go from here

So what do you do about all this? First, be aware of it. Second, understand what schools are doing about it.

Last year, the federal government committed $123 billion to help students catch up, which works out to about $2,400 per student. They required school districts to spend at least 20% of that money on academic recovery. Many schools are hiring tutors, both throughout the school year and over summer vacation. Ask questions of your school administrators and your school board about how they’re spending that money.

And finally, look for ways to help young people. Hire the teenagers. Volunteer with your church or food pantry. Ask your school if they need help. Run for the school board. (I know — it’s the most thankless job. But when could you make as much of a difference as you could right now?)

Friends, this matters, whether you have kids in school or not. It matters to your community. To the longevity of your community. To the success of your community. As a society, we believe in and fund a strong public education system because it benefits the entire society.

That starts in your small town. In your school system. And in the future adults it will produce.

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