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EDITORIAL: Distance learning created a new kind of dropout

Distance learning during the pandemic was disastrous even for the kids who logged on. But many “enrolled” students weren’t really paying attention.

Writing recently in The Atlantic, Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits offered a thorough review of how school shutdowns disrupted students’ lives. Ms. Levinson is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mr. Markovits teaches at Yale Law School. Amid a series of staggering statistics, what stood out is how often students simply didn’t show up.

They estimated that the average public school student “experienced 65 school days without any contact whatsoever from their schools or teachers” by the end of the 2020-21 school year. Contact is a long way from learning. A phone call from a teacher counts, but that alone is unlikely to lead to much academic advancement. This was after more than 20 percent of students were functionally truant during spring 2020’s online classes.

Unsurprisingly, low-income students were more likely to be absent. Public school students living in households earning less than $25,000 experienced 76 days without any formal learning. Students whose parents made more than $200,000 experienced around 54 days of no schooling. Neither is ideal, but the difference is noticeable.

There are many possible explanations. A poorer family was less likely to have a working device and internet connection. There was less likely to be a parent in the home making sure students logged onto class. Financial pressure could have meant an older sibling had to care for younger siblings who otherwise would have been in school.

Those are less significant problems for wealthier families. Those families also had other options. Many sent their children to private schools. While the Clark County School District shut its doors for most of the 2020-21 school year, some private schools remained open for in-person learning. Other families could home-school. This is yet more evidence that all Nevada students need school choice.

To solve pandemic-related problems, the federal government showered money on schools. In total, our local district received more than $1.2 billion. While some programs — such as summer learning classes — seem useful, many are unlikely to close these learning gaps. For instance, out of the last batch of funding, the district is spending almost $200 million to “upgrade technology” and around $200 million on new instructional materials. In contrast, its summer learning programming is budgeted at $69 million.

Here’s an idea: To make up for lost learning, students need more in-person instruction, not a computer or pricey curriculum.

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