'This is hell': Parents and kids hate online classes. Going back to school likely will include more of it.

Erin Richards, USA Today

In his suburban New Jersey home-turned-classroom this spring, parent Don Seaman quickly found himself in the role of household vice principal.

While his wife holed up in the bedroom to work each day, Seaman, a media and marketing professional, worked from the family room where he could supervise his children's virtual learning. A similar scene played out in millions of American homes after schools shuttered and moved classes online to contain the coronavirus.

Now that the year's over, Seaman has strong feelings about the experience: Despite the best efforts of teachers, virtual learning didn't work. At least not uniformly, if his three children in elementary, middle and high school are any indication.

"The older kids were saying, 'This is hell,'" Seaman said. "My kids feel isolated, and they can't keep up, and they're struggling with it."

But like it or not, remote instruction and virtual learning are likely to continue for millions of children this fall. That's because most districts can't observe physical distancing with all students attending class together in-person.

Many reopening plans rely on hybrid learning schedules, where students attend school on alternating days or weeks and learn from home on the other days, on a computer where feasible.  

Yet America’s educators know little about how to improve the online learning experience – and many districts are spending almost no time trying to figure it out before the fall term starts.

The stakes are high. In the event of a spike in infections — a real possibility, as mounting cases in states such as Texas and Florida indicate — distance learning in affected regions likely will become universal again. And students can’t afford to lose more ground, as many did when classes went online this spring.Millions simply disappeared or logged on but didn't participate.  

Nationwide, only one in three districts expected teachers to provide remote instruction and monitor students' academic engagement this spring, according to a study that tracked 477 districts.

"There wasn't a lot in the way of interventions for kids who were falling off," said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Education, a nonpartisan research group in Washington state that conducted the study. 

"That's a huge problem in distance learning."

District leaders are understandably preoccupied with logistical planning for reopening schools while also keeping coronavirus at bay.

Some parents worried about their kids' emotional health and their own ability to work are pressuring schools for a return to in-person classes. And face-to-face instruction could provide stronger support for vulnerable students who fell the furthest behind this spring. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging schools to prioritize in-person classes because of the negative social, emotional and academic effects of school closures.

"Policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home," says new guidance from the organization representing about 67,000 pediatricians. 

Nationwide, parents are split on sending their children back to classrooms. A slight majority — 56% — said they want their children to attend schools full time this fall, according to a Gallup poll this month. But in a USA TODAY poll in late May, 6 in 10 parents said they were more likely to pursue at-home learning options.

Some education experts think districts should double-down on improving remote and virtual instruction, rather than figuring out new ways to have students attend school part-time.

"There's a risk that teachers will be overwhelmed, and the resulting hybrid could be of lower quality than a strong early commitment to remote instruction," said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

'Surprising lack of research' on what works in online learning

As millions of teachers and families discovered this fall, learning virtually is hard. For many students, it's difficult to engage with classmates and participate in class. For many teachers, it's difficult to help struggling students and form solid relationships with only video, chat and email. Exhausted parents-turned-tutors, especially those trying also to work from home, say it's not sustainable. 

Unfortunately, solutions are not readily at hand.

"There is a surprising lack of research into what techniques make for high-quality virtual instruction," said Brian Fitzpatrick, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame and former middle-school teacher. "The COVID pandemic has certainly drawn attention to the need to identify best practices."

It's tempting to turn for help to America's longest-running experiment with online schooling: virtual charter schools, which have been around since the 1990s and can be run by districts or private management companies. Around 300,000 students nationwide were enrolled in full-time virtual schools in the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Education Policy Center, a left-learning education think tank in Colorado.

On average, their academic outcomes are overwhelmingly low. When students switch to virtual charter schools from brick-and-mortar schools, their achievement drops, recent studies show. One was conducted by Fitzpatrick, who compared outcomes for students attending virtual and traditional schools in Indiana.

"We find the impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative," Fitzpatrick and his colleagues wrote this month in a post for the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank.

Still, business is up at virtual charters since the pandemic began, said company leaders at Connections Academy and K12 Inc., which power a majority of virtual charters in America.

They attributed low achievement and graduation rates over the years to low-achieving students transferring in from traditional schools.

"Less than 20% of students who come to us are learning at the grade level they entered," said Nate Davis, CEO of K12.

For other students, particularly those with a committed parent in the home, virtual schooling can be highly tailored and effective, said Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Connections.

“There’s a critical role the family plays," she said. "When kids are little you need that adult presence. And they need to be communicating with that child’s teacher on a regular basis."

Comfort with online learning depended on experience 

Leaders in districts with more experience using blended or online learning platforms feel they're further along in preparing for fall.