The hollow classroom

Remote school let kids down. It will take much more than extra tutoring for kids to recover.

A classroom.
Students sitting at their desk during class
(Image credit: Maskot / Getty Images)

For a brief period four years ago, when the U.S. first declared a COVID emergency, it seemed like we were suspended in time, with everything rolling to a stop. And then the world resumed — just with all the trends in play moving faster. Whether it was political polarization or the rise of remote work, COVID made the future come sooner. And as it was for the adult world, so it was for schools and kids, only worse. Remote school brought to the forefront the increasing loneliness and confusion of American children and teenagers. The COVID years caused a measurable decline in math and reading scores, what we think of as "pandemic learning loss." But the hours of missed classroom time just scratch the surface of what has been taken away from kids. When COVID hit, we were already seeing falling reading scores worldwide, falling independence, and increasing anxiety. The underlying trend was already there, and COVID made it worse. 

It has been well over two years since the overwhelming majority of schools in the U.S. fully reopened, and we still see a doubling of absentee rates. This is not pandemic learning loss. It is a retreat of kids into their homes, into themselves, and most of all into their electronic devices. The signs of trouble are everywhere. The SAT just got rid of long reading passages, one more sign of the decline of attention. At my son's school, the plays the sixth to eighth-graders put on have gotten simpler and shorter because kids are not used to memorizing lines or acting on stage. And in the most troubling data point of all, rates of teen suicide have climbed dramatically. These are not issues that will be solved with a few more hours of time in a classroom. We have been letting our kids down for a long time. COVID just made that clear — hopefully clear enough that we can see how much better we need to do.

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