When COVID-19 spread globally in spring 2020, hundreds of millions of students across the world had no choice but to attend school remotely. The consensus now is that the outcomes were overwhelmingly negative. Closing schools created sizable learning losses and likely widened racial and economic achievement gaps.

Yet schools continue to offer—and even expand—remote-learning options. And demand has grown strongly. Between 2021 and 2022, there was a 47 percent increase in families enrolling in exclusively virtual schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Why are schools and families opting for online learning given the evidence from the past few years? Investigating this question, Brown’s Jesse Bruhn, Chicago Booth’s Christopher Campos, and University of Texas’s Eric Chyn find that while remote schooling may be detrimental to learning for most students, a specific subset appears to have benefited from it.

The researchers ran a two-part survey in Los Angeles, where the school district fully returned after more than a year of remote learning in fall 2021 but said it would maintain an online option—and then opened 60 new virtual academies in 2023. In the first survey, conducted in April 2022, Bruhn, Campos, and Chyn asked 100,000 families with children in grades 3–8 or 11 questions about their experience with remote learning, including whether they were satisfied with the virtual option and whether they felt their child excelled relative to in-person learning.

Who benefited from a virtual classroom? 

For most students, the research finds, online schooling brought down test scores. But students whose families had a high preference for remote learning saw an improvement, possibly because these students learn best at their own pace or with less social pressure.

The second part of the survey gave parents 10 hypothetical scenarios, each asking which of three schools they preferred. The schools varied along three attributes: distance from survey takers’ home, academic achievement of the student body, and instruction being either remote or in person. By pooling answers to these surveys, the researchers were able to construct a picture of school preference, including how much demand families have for remote learning. They matched these results with test scores from the 2021–22 school year to connect this demand with student outcomes. (The sample of parents who responded to survey tended to have higher-achieving students who were less likely to be in special education.)

In many ways, the results reinforce the current narrative of remote schooling: 62 percent of parents, reflecting back on a year when school buildings were closed, said their child did not enjoy remote learning, and nearly 80 percent said they were unlikely to choose remote learning in the future. The hypothetical choice experiment reveals that academic achievement at a given school would need to increase by 40 percent for most parents to accept remote over in-person learning. That’s an unlikely scenario, since academic performance for the average student dropped when attending school remotely.

But 22 percent of survey takers said their student excelled in remote learning. While most students who went remote saw a decline in test scores, about 10 percent performed better—and their parents expressed a preference for remote learning. The researchers can’t explain why this small group of students benefited, but several theories exist. Among them, is that bullying declined during remote learning, as a team of researchers from Boston University find, in which case it’s possible that reduced social pressure led to academic gains.

The findings reveal a gap in how educators and policy makers understand the potential of remote learning. To accept the average experience of students over the course of the pandemic as universally true, Campos says, ignores the fact that some kids benefit from staying home, that there is important variability in how receptive families are to the upsides of virtual schooling.

“Discourse in the press and academia thus far tends to simply lump the issue into negative territory,” he says. “This does tend to be true on average, but policy makers need to understand these families in the other 10 percent, and perhaps better target them with remote options. There is a lot more to be learned about remote learning in the postpandemic landscape.”

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