The Disproportionate Impact of Distanced Learning

Image via EdSurge

Since the COVID-19 virus arrived in the United States, the Trump Administration has politicized scientific findings to an unprecedented and dangerous degree.

By definition, science is the pursuit of knowledge — knowledge that, in an ideal world, is built into the policies that govern society. As such, science and politics have always been intrinsically connected. However, the current administration has repeatedly cast doubt on leading scientists’ recommendations, characterizing them as “an impediment to reopening schools,” and claiming that any findings that don’t advance President Trump’s political interests are “partisan science” (Frieden, Koplan, Satcher, and Besser, 2020). If there is one thing that scientists and politicians can agree upon, it’s that students learn best in classroom environments. Recent findings suggest that certain groups of students — namely, elementary schoolers, students with disabilities, and low-income and BIPOC students — are in greater need of in-person schooling than older students or those with access to additional resources.

Summary of Findings

A recent New York Times article analyzed a report issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and concluded that reopening schools as soon as possible should be a top government priority, citing educational risks otherwise (Mandavilli, 2020). The report comes after months of research by many scientists, psychologists, and educators has come to the consensus that in-person learning is a critically important factor on student achievement. The NASEM report diverged from existing recommendations by asserting that elementary-age students are in more critical need of going back to school in-person this fall, and made stricter recommendations than those offered by the Centers for Disease Control — including regular mask-wearing, symptom checks, and government-funded renovation of air circulation systems so as to mitigate the risk of airborne spread.

The committee, comprised of influential educators and epidemiologists, concluded that reopening schools should be a priority because public schools offer a critical network of support to local communities — not only education, but also child care, nutrition, health services, and social services. The article explicitly stated that “online learning is ineffective for most elementary-school children and special-needs children.” This report built off of critical psychological findings, including the fact that children aged six to nine are “still developing the skills to regulate their own behavior, emotions, and attention, and therefore struggle with distance learning” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020).

Impact on Childhood Cognitive Development

This finding aligns with the study of childhood development and learning undertaken in this course, informed by Paul Okami’s Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives. Okami primarily credits Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget for our modern understanding of childhood cognitive development. Piaget was a proponent of the constructivist theory of development, which holds that children actively construct understandings of their worlds, based on both experience and their stage of psychological and biological maturation (Okami, 174). His theories went so far as to divide the process of development into four distinct stages with benchmarks that defined “normal” childhood development.

Piaget labeled the elementary school years as the “concrete operations stage,” in which children make the critical transition from egocentric and symbolic thought to employing applications of logic and reasoning to concrete situations (Okami, 178). While it should be noted that Piaget’s theories have been criticized, there is broad consensus in the field of developmental psychology that receiving consistent, high-quality elementary schooling is one of the strongest predictors of academic success (Lipsett, 2008). Other developmental psychologists have concluded that childhood consists of “critical periods” for developing certain skills, defined as “a stage in development when the brain displays increased sensitivity to certain types of stimuli” (Okami, 163). Many of these critical periods fall within the years in which children navigate elementary school, which supports the notion that access to high-quality education during this period is critical.

Impact on Racial and Socioeconomic Achievement Gaps

The findings of the NASEM report also relate to the study of intelligence, academic achievement, and how these outcomes are impacted by childhood environments. Developmental psychologists have concluded that approximately 50% of intelligence is dependent on genetics and 50% is influenced by a child’s environment — which includes family background, health, child care, education, race, socioeconomic status, and more (Okami, 462). As such, BIPOC and low-income students are statistically less likely to have access to well-funded school districts with adequate support systems and resources, which likely contributes to the overall underrepresentation of BIPOC and low-income students in pools of high achieving students (McKinsey, 2020). These systemic inequalities play a major role in the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps facing the U.S. public education system.

A recent analysis by McKinsey has revealed additional evidence showing that remote learning is likely to exacerbate these existing achievement gaps. The study found that the amount of learning loss incurred by extended periods of remote learning will likely be greatest among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students due to discrepancies in home environments and lack of access to resources (McKinsey, 2020). The study estimates that while the average student will lose seven months of learning, Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year — figures that would exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent (McKinsey, 2020).

To address these questions, the NASEM report recommended that racial and socioeconomic inequities should be a major consideration when weighing the pros and cons of reopening schools. Studies have shown that students from low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic due to more fragile or non-existent support networks and more limited access to resources that help with the transition to virtual learning, such as quiet study spaces or personal laptops. According to the New York Times, around 30% of Indigenous families and 20% of Black and Latino families don’t have internet access other than via smartphone, compared to only 7% of white families and 4% of Asian families (Mandavilli, 2020). Specifically, the report recommended that reopening plans “address disparities in school facilities, staffing shortages, overcrowding, and remote learning infrastructures” and that under-resourced districts should receive additional financial support in order to do so (NASEM, 2020).


The NASEM report made critically important recommendations regarding the increased need for young, special needs, low-income, and BIPOC students to re-enter in-person learning environments as soon as it is safe to do so. The report accurately assesses the need for the current presidential administration to prioritize such groups. However, that the authors chose not to outline the ways in which virtual learning can be detrimental for adolescent students as well. Through studying the teenage brain, scientists understand that adolescence is a critical period in brain development characterized by a burst in synaptic production followed by a period of synaptic pruning (Okami, 183). Critically, the experiences that teenagers undergo during this pruning period dictates which synapses are strengthened and which aren’t — meaning that adolescent brain development is directly shaped by teen behavior. A recent review of scientific literature studying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health concluded that “young people were as much as 3 times more likely to develop depression in the future due to social isolation, with the impact of loneliness on mental health lasting up to 9 years later” (HCPLive, 2020). Teenagers today are having to navigate life in a global pandemic on top of an already tumultuous period of their lives, which has concerning implications for teenage brain development.

These articles demonstrate how critical it is that plans to reopen schools prioritize the learning of students from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has generally concluded that racial disparities have resulted in higher mortality rates among BIPOC communities, as well as higher risks of contracting COVID-19 in the first place (Mental Health America, 2020). Failing to prioritize the students that come from predominantly Black, Latino, and low-income communities will not only be inequitable — it will also incur a crippling economic burden down the line. The aforementioned McKinsey analysis found that, in 2009 alone, the racial achievement gap put a drain on the U.S. economy of $310 billion to $525 billion (equivalent to 2 to 4 percent of GDP). The gap between high and low-income students was even greater — between $400 billion to $670 billion (or 3 to 5 percent of GDP). In other words, the systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality within the American public education system is “the equivalent of a permanent economic recession” that is likely to worsen if federal reopening plans fail to prioritize these students (McKinsey, 2020).

However, it is important to acknowledge the extremely valid concerns of educators worried about the risk of contracting the virus if schools reopen too soon. While early research tentatively suggested that children were less likely to spread COVID-19, multiple studies published in the past week have actually concluded the opposite, suggesting children might spread the virus more efficiently than adults (Haseltine, 2020). Scientists can only be sure that we don’t have all the answers, not to mention the fact that the United States is the only high-income country in the list of countries with the top ten highest rates of COVID-19 per 1 million people, and the numbers are increasing (Our World in Data, 2020). Thus, we are facing a tradeoff: push schools to reopen so as to prevent disproportionate learning loss among BIPOC and low-income students and put the safety of educators at risk in the process, or sacrifice the cognitive and academic development of students to reduce the risk of viral transmission.

The decision to reopen U.S. schools will have a tangible impact on the safety of public educators, the learning outcomes of millions of students, and the strength of our economic future.

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June 10). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Goldstein, D. (2020, June 5). Research Shows Students Falling Months Behind During Virus Disruptions. The New York Times.

Goldstein, D. (2020, May 9). The Class Divide: Remote Learning at 2 Schools, Private and Public. The New York Times.

Haseltine, W. A. (2020, July 31). New Evidence Suggests Young Children Spread Covid-19 More Efficiently Than Adults. Forbes.

Laura Meckler, V. S. (2020, April 13). Millions of public school students will suffer from school closures, education leaders have concluded. The Washington Post.

Lipsett, A. (2008, November 27). Early schooling matters most for children. The Guardian.

Mandavilli, A. (2020, July 15). Citing Educational Risks, Scientific Panel Urges That Schools Reopen. The New York Times.

Mental Health America, Inc. (2020). BIPOC Communities and COVID-19. Mental Health America.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020, July 15). Schools Should Prioritize Reopening in Fall 2020, Especially for Grades K-5, While Weighing Risks and Benefits.

Our World in Data. (2020, July 31). Coronavirus Pandemic Data Explorer. Our World in Data.

Strauss, V. (2020, April 17). Perspective | Why covid-19 will ‘explode’ existing academic achievement gaps. The Washington Post.

Tom Frieden, J. K. (2020, July 14). Perspective | We ran the CDC. No president ever politicized its science the way Trump has. The Washington Post.

Valant, J. (2020, July 29). School reopening plans linked to politics rather than public health. Brookings.

Walter, K. (2020, June 2). COVID-19 Lockdown Having an Impact on Adolescent Mental Health. HCPLive.

I mostly write about tech policy, freedom of expression, and equity in the digital world. –––––––––––––––– COMM + CS @ Penn

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