Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

25. We seem to be entering a phase of open-ended remote education, however, with the mapping of infections unclear, and the nation sitting on the edge of fears of a second wave of an outbreak of COVID-19 that still seems to be rising by 20,000 weekly in infections, with no antiviral or vaccination in sight, even if hospitals have become better at handling cases of COVID-19 and of isolating infected individuals to restrict infection: but we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, with a greater outbreak in prisons, for example, or a spread of the virus among the most vulnerable refugees, whose living conditions and crowding in camps along the southwestern border seem a powder keg with few opportunities for social distancing, and few clinics for diagnosis, despite treatment centers at the US-Mexico border in Matamoros and Reynosa by Doctors Without Borders in northern Mexico, and a smaller clinic in Tijuana, receiving local hospitals.

Yet we are also looking, or venturing to look, at the nature of the declines of learning–and interruption or a life-long impact–that the question of school closures poses. Even putting aside the importance of early literacy programs, and pre-K daycare and engagement that seems suspended until future notice, imagining the effects of learning loss in this McKinsey visualization as if learning proceeded on a straight incline, like Sisyphus, without ever smiling, but declining on a prolonged “summer slide” perhaps extending into the fall, and distrusting the value of education, moreover, as remote classes are devalued as many former students are pressed into the labor market, to compensate for lost wages of other family members. It is as if the lack of good data on the effects of school closures lacked, or the weird readiness to enter into a landscape of school shutdowns revealed the lack of preparedness that led school cancellations to be so readily adopted as a means of containment of a disease, whose “cure” in this case may be worse even than the horrific nature of its spread, as the turn to low quality remote learning suggests a learning loss that will last over multiple years and potentially across a generation.

McKinsey: Achievement Gap and Coronavirus in the Untied States

The broad decline set in motion is clearly tied to our future GDP and to future economic productivity and lifetime quality, but the fear of an economic slowdown in productivity and sales seems to have obscured the eventuality and cruelty of an interruption of the promise of public education for offering the chance of upward social mobility: the loss of GDP in a failure to close the “achievement gap” McKinsey calculates among Black and Hispanic students is up to 3.3% of GDP, and lost income among low income students of 2-2.6% GDP.

We can measure declines in educational progress with the rise of remote learning across most states that are extremely alarming: hexmaps below suggest the likely rise of a learning deficit in math with continued standards of remote learning in much of the nation, which correlates to a broad decline in student participation, save in Connecticut and Vermont.

Tracking Student Progress in Online Math Learning, All Incomes
64.2% Decline in Student Progress in Online Math Remote Learning,,January-June 2020
68% Reduction in Learning Participation , January 20 2020-June 6, 2020

If this is echoed in the lower income hex map of student progress in math, the drop in progress was even sharper a week after stimulus payments.

Independently from COVID-19, or the study of the infectious contraction of SARS-CoV-2, school closures had seemed an imaginative way to disrupt the contact network of contagion of influenza to curtail contagious spread, by “targeted social distancing”–starting from those sites judged a “perfect environment” for vectors potentially spreading the disease. And, indeed, National Guard members sent to New Rochelle when the first community based contraction of the virus was detected went into high hear sanitizing community centers’ childcare equipment, in military fatigues and protective gear, responding to the state of emergency the Commander-in-Chief declared, scrubbing play structures of traces of SARS-CoV-19, as the closure of schools and gathering sites in New Rochelle led National Guard members to arrive to distribute school lunches for those in need, in the first “containment area” for COVID-19 on March 12, 2020–the very day after the transformation of the coronavirus to a global pandemic was declared.

March 10 Containment Area in New Rochelle

National Guard members sent to New Rochelle went into high hear sanitizing community centers’ childcare equipment, in military fatigues and protective gear, responding to the state of emergency the Commander-in-Chief had declared, lest it carry traces of SARS-CoV-19, even as such sites were not yet permanently closed, but the spread hoped to be contained.

Jamor Cleanses Globe in New Rochelle Jewish Community Center/(c) Andrew Seng/New York Times
(c) Andrew Seng/New York Times,March 13, 2020

Although children make up less than 2% of the 149,760 cases of infection confirmed February 12 and April 2, the dangers of transmitting the novel coronavirus to vulnerable populations may almost have detracted attention from the question of attending to more vulnerable populations. For school closures created a deep disruption difficult to determine–although the danger of bathrooms as sites of transmission at schools may have provided dangerous hot-spots, and dangers of exposing teachers and staff to the virus steep–although not nearly as steep as health workers, nursing home aides, or apartment building doormen. Yet were we not nearly as attendant to the centers where the circulation of air and droplets provided dangerous sites of the incubation of viral loads in the air of sites of true confinement–of prisons; airports; meat-processing plants; old age homes; hospital wards–even if we were right to close malls?

(c) Andrew Seng, New York Times March 13, 2020

The switch was so swift that its radical underpinnings were not widely noted. California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, had, as many local leaders, resisted school closures, deferring to local officials, even as Governors in states on both coasts—Oregon, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland–feared the expansion of the virus in schools, and had ordered statewide closures of public schools, which some private schools had already begun. Apparently faced primarily by challenges of  limited bandwidth that would accentuate inequalities already existing in education, administrators feared undue disruptions, or hampering the abilities of first responders to do their needed work, Newsom reasoned that the schools provided a crucial piece of the social network that was also not able to be replaced: but the disproportions scale at which COVID-19 has faced communities of color, and in particularly, in a terrifying doubling, African Americans, created a problematic demand for ensuring instruction to the public good, without endangering some of the most seriously affected at risk groups whose diminished opportunities and increased vulnerability were terrifyingly, alarmingly clear, and with little comparable help from a health care system. And as racial breakdowns of data on testing and treatment for the novel coronavirus are far less accessibly, the picture of the possibly huge disparates in danger and vulnerability are lurking behind the spread of disease, often unduly and unpardonably submerged in discussion of “reopening” states’ economies and effectively silenced.

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Filed under Coronavirus, COVID-19, education policies, remote learning, school closures

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