What Will “Getting Back to Normal” Look Like?

Statistics show the impact of learning loss during the pandemic, while experts offer suggestions for how best to restart in-person education.

Emin Kelekci/Getty Images (modified)


For nearly a year, educators have been scrambling to provide education to their students, sometimes cycling between remote, in-person, and hybrid models several times a month.

Finally, as vaccines start to spread across the country, including for some teachers, it’s not unreasonable to actually start thinking about what school will, and should, look like when students and staff return full-time.

At the risk of adding to teachers’ and librarians’ anxiety, this shift isn’t expected to be any easier than those of the last 12 months.

“We can’t go back and say it’s March 14 now,” says New York City’s Melissa Jacobs, referring to the day after schools were closed last year. As the director of the New York City Department of Education School Library System, she cites numerous concerns that students will face from social anxieties to lost learning to a reintroduction of print materials.

“We’re going to have a generation of kids that have PTSD,” she adds. Still, she and others have ideas about safeguards that should be followed as students and staff re-learn how in-person schooling works with a full building.

But before skipping to the end, it helps to understand just what most students have, and, in large part, are, still going through.

The most comprehensive attempt to quantify learning loss during the pandemic also shows the limits of trying to capture the issue with numbers.

Non-profit assessment company NWEA matched results from this spring’s Measure of Academic Progress tests against “typical” students from the previous year. The company found that students in grades 3-8 nearly equaled their predecessors’ scores in reading, while they were five to 10 percentage points behind in math.

A key footnote to this less-than-awful news, however, is that only about three-quarters of the usual number of students took tests this spring, meaning that one in four students’ results are missing. These absent students may be the ones struggling the most, says NWEA CEO Chris Minnich.

“Students lost 15 percent to 35 percent of school last year,” says Michael Barbour, a distance-learning expert who teaches at Touro University in California. Barbour says that mismanagement from federal, state, and local officials have crippled the effectiveness of remote learning plans nationwide. “Can I point to some specific examples of schools doing a reasonable job in terms of planning and addressing issues? Yes. But the reality is, too few districts made the transition from emergency remote learning [in the spring] to just remote learning [in the fall].”

A primary reason for concern: It is simply harder for schools to get students to attend virtual classes. Earlier studies have proven that chronic absenteeism, defined as missing one of every 10 school days, affects students’ reading levels, graduation rates, and dropout rates. In Connecticut, a new report shows that students attending school in person are now missing an average of one day for every 20 school days. But those learning online miss one of 10 days, meaning the average online student is chronically absent. These stats are in a state that recently announced it had closed its digital divide: Connecticut spent $67.5 million to ensure that each child had both a computer and high-speed internet access.

Cities including Chicago, Detroit, and Rochester, NY, all reported lower-than-expected attendance rates for remote learning, with those students in lower socio-economic groups missing the most instruction. In Alabama, where at least 70 percent of students were learning remotely this fall, 141,000 devices remained on back order while districts had to offer Wi-Fi by parking connected school buses throughout their regions.

It’s also hard for students to stay focused remotely. As many as three in four teachers said in a recent survey that their students were less engaged in online learning than in pre-pandemic lessons. Engagement tended to decline as the remote learning continued, teachers added.

Special ed support dipped significantly, too. More than eight of 10 superintendents said providing equitable services for special education learners was “difficult.” That was backed up by the results from a Parents Together survey, where parents with special education children said 40 percent of them were not receiving any special support during remote learning. Only 20 percent reported their children were receiving all the special ed services they typically get in school.

For those hoping to look past remote learning, the news has been mixed. On the vaccine side, more than one million shots were administered on January 20, only the second time the country passed this figure. In 15 states, all teachers are eligible to receive one of the country’s two approved vaccines, according to Education Week’s analysis. In eight other states, some teachers are eligible, depending on their age and other local regulations.

Jacobs received her first vaccine shot recently.“I feel like there’s hope on the horizon, that we’re moving toward something,” she says.

But even as vaccine news advances and President Biden prioritizes reopening schools, more schools are switching to remote education because of the virus’ ongoing strength. Analysis from Center on Reinventing Public Education showed that schools offering remote learning jumped from 21 percent to 31 percent just from early November to late December. Indeed, at least six European countries, ranging from the U.K. to Germany, are closing schools for the first time since the spring as some officials worry that the new variant of COVID-19 will spread more quickly among school children.

Whenever in-person learning does resume, educators say lessons learned during the pandemic will have to inform instruction going forward.

One lesson that was reinforced during remote learning is that “big factory high schools don't fit for every student,” says Jacqueline Perez, an assistant superintendent at California’s Riverside Unified School District. Some students in her district thrived during remote learning, in part because the new schedules allowed them more independence, she adds.

Still, she says, “there’s a point where students don’t want to be online the entire time.” Riverside is looking at a number of alternatives to remote learning. Blended classrooms might remain in the district’s future. “We’re trying to anticipate what’s going to happen,” she says, but those decisions are contingent on a number of factors, from vaccine rollout to how students have coped with the stresses of the pandemic, social justice efforts, and a nation that is deeply divided politically.

“It’s been tumultuous. We’re making sure students have a safe space to share their voices,” Perez says.

Jacobs says one of the hardest challenges in planning for in-person learning is that we’re still in the middle of a crisis. “It’s been so hard to digest the experience,” she says.

Her two daughters have had vastly different responses to remote learning, reinforcing that schools will need to pay attention to each learner’s needs when in-person learning restarts. “I think we need to individualize instruction, but our system is not set up for that,” she says.

Jacobs says the next time she steps in her offices (she has three spread throughout New York City), she can’t imagine the amount of time that will be needed to go through her papers. Amplifying that problem, she says librarians will need to reevaluate everything in their program space and learn how to mix the new cache of e-content with their legacy print products.

“Collection development will face a huge shift,” she predicts.

Focusing back on students, the librarian says the nation’s largest district will undoubtedly face a large number of students who have disappeared during remote learning. The district will have to address student trauma and anxiety as it re-assimilates them to classrooms and fellow students.

“There will be a lot of relearning and rethinking,” Jacobs predicts, comparing it to the district’s effort when students arrive to the country without a background in formal education.

Librarians will be well positioned to help with this important work, Jacobs says, because they have known the learners in their schools for multiple years, getting a better picture of each student than a single-grade teacher. “In theory, we should know how to support them in a stronger way” than classroom teachers.

The vaccine and a return to in-person learning won’t totally eradicate the need for some type of blended programs, officials predict. Barbour offers a cautious take, saying he expected some forms of remote learning to continue well into next school year, because children will be one of the last groups to receive the vaccine. Casting virus concerns aside, Barbour says that climate changes, such as longer fire seasons and more hurricanes, will mean schools should expect to close in-person learning more frequently in future years. “We’re seeing a lot more disruptions to the K-12 system in general,” he says, “For some reason, the U.S. hasn’t figured out this is something they should be ready for.”

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing