With a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases ahead of the holiday season, many schools have decided to quickly transition back to fully remote learning (Shapiro, 2020). Since September, more than 8 million students are estimated to be enrolled in schools with remote learning (Lieberman, 2020). Are these students effectively learning their curriculum, and can virtual education be effective at all?

A study on “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Learning” conducted at Hong Bang International University, which involved students and teachers who were experiencing virtual learning for the first time, found that advantages included exposure to new forms of learning and better pacing with the curriculum. However, numerous disadvantages were identified, including extensive time staring at screens, lack of social interaction, lack of body movement, fear of online tests, and concentration loss (Doan, 2020). Considering that these findings were present for university students, it seems likely that students in K-12 would be more at a disadvantage in learning online.

According to a Pew Research Center study on parent satisfaction with current K-12 education, parents of students who were in at least some remote learning were more concerned about their children falling behind compared to those still attending in-person learning. Parents of remote students also spend more time providing additional instruction to their children. When considering income, lower income families were more concerned about their children falling behind in school than middle and upper income families (Horowitze, 2020).

From the perspectives of students, many say they miss true social interaction and engagement with their peers and teachers. Saige Jensen is a seventh grader from rural Oregon who, like many other middle schoolers, doesn’t have a smartphone or social media. In an article by Steven Yoder, she talks about some of the challenges she encounters without in person learning: “I’m used to like tons of kids talking [in person] all the time. And it’s quiet now…You’re trying to do work on your own that you may not know how to do,” (Yoder, 2020). Her busy teachers and slow internet connection only add to the difficulties of remote learning, and many young students face these same problems.

A team of researchers from the NWEA and various universities analyzed the projected impacts on student learning due to COVID-19 based on previous studies of students missing in-person instruction. They found that there would likely be a negative impact on learning due to students’ physical separation from school, and that decreases in Math standardized test scores would be greater than decreases in ELA ability. Furthermore, losses in learning would potentially be greatest for middle school students (Kuhfield). According to Benedict Carey’s New York Times article, the most authoritative studies show that 

“Students tend to learn less efficiently than usual in online courses, as a rule, and depending on the course. But if they have a facilitator or mentor on hand, someone to help with the technology and focus their attention — an approach sometimes called blended learning — they perform about as well in many virtual classes, and sometimes better,” (Carey, 2020).

However, with the inequities in access to technology, teachers, and resources, the successes and failures of virtual learning actually seem to reflect the underlying problems within the education system. Many students without access to resources are missing school altogether, leading some schools to come up with temporary solutions, yet are often not able to fully address the problem. Danielle del Plato says it well, “Parents are not only seeing how flawed and glitch-riddled remote teaching is—they’re discovering that many of the problems of remote schooling are merely exacerbations of problems with in-person schooling,” (Christakis, 2020). Because of this, the experiences we observe may not necessarily reflect virtual learning itself. It is clear that we need to fulfill basic needs for all Americans to access education online and invest more in students’ education to see a world in which virtual learning can truly succeed.

It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of remote learning, all inequities aside, and there have not been many studies on this topic particularly. However, in the current environment, the positive effects of distance learning for some students do not necessarily offset the struggles faced by students feeling isolated, unmotivated, or struggling to stay connected due to technology limitations. 

At PassionNet, we are working to implement the advantages of virtual learning while transforming the style of learning from the traditional education system. In our programs, students talk more than lead mentors and mentors, and students who fall behind are given 1-1 attention outside of scheduled meetings (McGrath, 2019). Meetings last no longer than 90 minutes to ensure that students get time away from their screens, and students participate in activities throughout the meetings to keep them engaged. Further additions we hope to add to our 2021 program include dedicated time for community building and social interaction as well as stretch breaks during meetings to encourage students to get up and move every 30 minutes. By implementing the lessons learned from this year of remote instruction, PassionNet can highlight the advantages of online learning for students, equip them with the technology skills they need for future online learning, and provide them with tools to solve large social problems like educational disparities.

-Harshini Malli


Carey, B. (2020, June 13). What We’re Learning About Online Learning. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/13/health/school-learning-online-education.html

Christakis, E. (2020, November 10). School Wasn’t So Great Before COVID, Either. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/school-wasnt-so-great-before-covid-either/616923/

Doan Thi Hue Dung. (2020). The Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Learning. IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education (IOSR-JRME), 10(3), pp. 45-48.

Horowitze, Juliana M., Igielnik, Ruth. (2020, October 29). Most Parents of K-12 Students Learning Online Worry About Them Falling Behind. Retrieved from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/10/29/most-parents-of-k-12-students-learning-online-worry-about-them-falling-behind/

Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Lieberman, M. (2020, September 15). Why Students Still Can’t Access Remote Learning: How Schools Can Help. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2020/09/students_virtual_learning_access_gaps_new_year.html

McGrath, S. (2019, November 15). Talk Less So Students Learn More. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/talk-less-so-students-learn-more

Shapiro, E. (2020, November 18). New York City to Close Public Schools Again as Virus Cases Rise. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/18/nyregion/nyc-schools-covid.html

Yoder, S. (2020, October 26). Middle school is often difficult. Try experiencing it under quarantine. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://hechingerreport.org/middle-school-is-often-difficult-try-experiencing-it-under-quarantine/

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