Younger students, those with disabilities likely to struggle most with remote learning, UB expert says

Release Date: December 17, 2020

Claire Cameron head shot.
“I would expect large academic losses for young children and children of any age with disabilities who typically need more scaffolding relative to same-age peers without disabilities. ”
Claire Cameron, associate professor of learning and instruction
University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Millions of K-12 students in the U.S. are learning remotely. Some have not stepped inside a classroom in nine months, with the start of 2021 looking much the same. This prolonged absence of educational structure will have unique effects on all students, especially those from underfunded and underserved communities.

Claire Cameron, PhD, associate professor of learning and instruction in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, says that while students are facing numerous challenges, the pandemic can become a turning point on how they are educated.

Below, she discusses the direct and indirect effects of students being away from the classroom for an extended period of time.

The loss of routine is hard to regain

“Speculating on long-term effects, there are the direct effects of being out of school routines, where children become unused to classroom settings and the structures of the school day, and re-entry whenever things return to ‘normal’ will likely take longer. My own research and that of many others shows that the first part of the school year [perhaps the first 6-8 weeks if a hard number is helpful] is important for building community, setting expectations and clearly showing students what it means to operate independently in the classroom setting. When teachers do this well and invest heavily in this ‘classroom organization’ early in the year, then students are able to direct more of their own learning in the winter and spring. I would expect that any re-entry period after a pandemic-related absence to take longer than 6-8 weeks and for teachers and schools to need to invest even more time and energy to set up the classroom effectively,” Cameron said.

The uneven effects of ‘learning loss’

“Another effect I would categorize as direct is ‘learning loss,’ which we normally understand as happening after the long summer break. This is a classic example of uneven effects on learning by social position in society, because research shows that summer loss occurs mainly for low-income children, whose families can’t afford expensive summer camps and other enrichment activities. For higher-income children, we don’t see summer loss or we even see learning gains over the summer,” said Cameron.

Heightened levels of trauma and stress

“The indirect effects we are likely to see from the pandemic arise from those existing pressures or stresses that are not directly connected to school, but have been exacerbated by school closings. Trauma is an important experience, or set of experiences, to talk about and it applies to a lot of processes and situations. For example, child abuse has increased as children spend more time out of school and around abusive family members; note that most abusers are people close to the child, who know them personally and/or are relatives. Other traumas such as losing family members to COVID-19, reduced income or homelessness due to job loss, will all affect children’s ability to return to school and engage successfully in learning. This is because trauma and surviving it decreases a child’s ability to use their attention to engage in learning [which is cognitively and often emotionally difficult]. All resources in a traumatic situation or period of life get devoted to survival and managing the unexpected, stressful and often health- or life-threatening conditions,” said Cameron.

The youngest students impacted the most

“The younger the child, the more they need teacher and other adult support, called scaffolding, to engage in learning opportunities. So part of the huge stress we are seeing on families with young children is because the young ones – younger than, say, 7-8 years – need someone with them essentially all the time to help facilitate their learning, whether in-person or remote. So I would expect large academic losses for young children and children of any age with disabilities who typically need more scaffolding relative to same-age peers without disabilities. However, we also have to worry about teenagers for whom peer social relationships become super important by around middle school and which are profoundly disrupted by pandemic learning conditions,” said Cameron.

Focusing on the needs of the individual student

“The pandemic has also revealed how critical social connection, emotional and physical well-being, basic health, social studies, and scientific knowledge and information literacy [including one’s media diet or media hygiene] are for us to function and thrive as a society. Driven by school reforms and accountability movements in all administrations since President George W. Bush in 2000, schools have emphasized academic achievement in the narrow disciplines of reading and mathematics over these other aspects of human development and learning, and it is clear now this narrow focus is to the detriment of us all. We need to be thinking about what we can do to transform schools into places where children can develop into fully aware, empowered and active citizens who understand science and its interconnectedness with our human societies. Back to business as usual’ is the opposite of what I see as needed for schools returning from COVID-19,” said Cameron.

Changing education for the better

“The pandemic has opened a window for schools to reimagine their curricula to address justice and oppression and to use community-based expertise and empowerment models to meaningfully incorporate community-held wisdom into schooling for ALL children (not just privileged children). We see this systems change beginning as schools like BPS adopt anti-racism curricula. I would like to see more innovation and complete transformation of learning models with initiatives like service learning, outdoor learning, community-school-industry partnerships, and other projects that engage students in actively contributing to understanding and bettering their homes and communities,” said Cameron.

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