Almost a Year Into Remote Learning, What Have We Learned?

UChicago faculty discuss the effects of remote learning on Chicago students and teachers as well as important takeaways from remote learning as Chicago Public Schools begin to reopen.


Eric Fang

Bond Chapel sports new signage to guide visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Hamza Jilani, Deputy News Editor

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) passed a plan to reopen schools, following weeks of negotiations and almost a year of remote learning. The Maroon sat down with Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Education Lab, and Shantá Robinson, assistant professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, to discuss the effects of remote learning on CPS students and teachers as well as important takeaways from remote learning as CPS begins to reopen.

Ander discussed the problem of providing technology access to CPS students over the course of the remote-learning period. “It’s been a challenge for everybody, starting with making sure that students have access to the equipment that they need. Do they have computers? Do they have Internet access?” she said.

Recent census data cited by CPS suggests that an estimated 100,000 students in Chicago lack access to high-speed Internet. Robinson noted that “the pandemic highlighted the inequities that we’re [already] dealing with in schools.”

The Chicago Connected program, launched in June 2020, offers free high-speed Internet service to CPS students in their households. Currently, the program serves over 50,000 students, with a target to serve 100,000 students by the end of the 2020–21 school year.

Furthermore, to fulfill the technological needs of students without devices, CPS issued Chromebooks, iPads, and Windows laptops to students and offered quick-start guides to help families set up their issued devices.

Another shared concern was students’ mental health due to the social isolation of remote learning. “A school district really needs to be taking into account not just the academic needs that students have, but also the mental health and well-being of students,” said Ander. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25.5 percent of respondents reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey in June 2020.

Robinson expressed concern that schools will not properly address this crisis. “I don’t think the school districts and school leaders have done the work to say, ‘We’re coming back to a different system, one that's protected public health-wise. I’m looking at public health [in] a holistic manner:…students’ mental, social, and emotional health.”

CTU has expressed its prioritization of safety as it works with CPS to reopen in-person learning. In a statement, it said, “Thousands of students have lost at least one loved one to COVID. Those children—our students—deserve safety. Our parents and school families stood with us in this struggle because we stood for safety.”

Ander indicated that, going forward, CPS needs to be responsible for engaging students in new ways in light of the circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Districts around the country are really going to have to…be ready to think about much more creative, innovative ways to engage young people back in education but also understand the sort of life experiences that they’ve just been through.”

Remote learning has also had a significant impact on teachers’ roles and experiences. “If you are in a classroom, you can go from student to student and do some individualized attention and instruction,” Ander said about the challenge of maintaining student engagement. “It's much harder to do that when students have their cameras off or if students are in a situation where they don't have Internet access for that day.”

Robinson cited the labeling of teachers as essential workers as potentially positive, but not without the accompanying material and financial benefits. “Teachers are essential workers. Now that we've solidified that, let’s pay them for that. Let’s hold them up for what they’re doing.”

Ander and Robinson emphasized that equity must be prioritized as CPS reopens and that some of the adaptations that have already been made could set the stage for the future. Ander expressed her hope that the technological infrastructure built during the pandemic will create opportunities for more individualized learning. “There is now much more infrastructure and attention to how to differentiate or use virtual or online schooling and coursework so that students can have the content tailored to where they are,” she said.

Robinson highlighted the importance of addressing those who have been harmed the most by the pandemic as CPS reforms its educational policies. “We have to start thinking now about how we’re going to make sure that children who have really been harmed in the last 12 months really get what they need once they do return.”

Despite the challenges CPS faculty have faced due to the pandemic, Robinson is wary that equity will not be prioritized as schools reopen.

“People are so quick to go back to normal. And normal is defunding our public school system. Normal is taking teachers and school workers for granted. Normal is the problem. And we have to be more imaginative about what schools can be for those who are most disadvantaged and then work from there—not from the top, but from the bottom,” she said. “When we do that, we’ll be able to create reforms and interventions that truly help the students who need it the most.”