Why Are So Many Students Choosing to Learn Remotely?


Gigi Richer, Contributing Writer

When Hastings schools reopened in September, students faced the choice of whether or not to attend fully online. At first, only a few students chose to, mainly out of safety concerns. However, fully remote learning quickly increased in popularity, and the number of students in-person started to dwindle. 

“Now it is not a 50-50 split of people online to people in class, but instead 2 people in class in some circumstances with 18 people online,” says Graham Routhier, a fully remote senior. Why and how did this happen?

The obvious answer would be safety. The CDC has called schools a “potential source of COVID-19 outbreaks, due to the number of individuals intermingling in close proximity for extended periods of time.” Over 200,000 cases in school-aged children have been confirmed since March 2020, 63% of whom are adolescents ages 12-17. According to the COVID Monitor, an organization tracking COVID-19 cases in school districts in the United States, schools can reduce case rates by 40% by halving the number of students in person, but even with all of the protocols in place, such as requiring masks, social distancing, and dividers, going to school in-person has its risks. 

And for many, that risk isn’t worth it. “My parents weren’t totally comfortable with me being back at school,” says Isabella Depriest-Sullivan, a sophomore who’s been fully remote since the beginning of the year. Even if the students themselves felt comfortable going in, parents, ultimately, have the final decision when it comes to safety.

This preference for online learning may extend beyond just a matter of safety. After months of online school last year, being back in the building might be a hard adjustment, and could require more attention and engagement than online learning. So it’s no surprise that many students just want to stick to learning remotely. 

However, this turns remote learning into a slippery slope. There’s a multitude of reasons that a student might choose to learn remotely, some less respectable perhaps than others, and it is difficult to interpret which reasons are out of genuine concern for safety. 

“It’s definitely great to work from bed and be able to chat with friends online,” admitted one anonymous student. 

Students also might want to stay home because they have easier access to their notes and the internet during tests, giving them an advantage, or because none of their friends are in the building. If cheating becomes more rampant as students increasingly choose to stay home, students learning inside of the school building might be disadvantaged. 

It is also possible that as the number of students in-person decreases, more students choose to stay home because they just don’t want to be one of the few students in a class. This creates a sort of feedback loop. Are students choosing to learn remotely because it causes them less anxiety over their health, or because they don’t have to work as hard? “I think it’s a problem if we assume people are [staying home] because of tests or specific classes they want to miss, because academic integrity is important and if people are [staying home] to cheat, obviously that’s not good. However, I think that in-person school creates a lot of anxiety and problems for people, and we shouldn’t just assume that everyone’s choosing to stay home for a bad reason,” said Isabella. All in all, it’s impossible to know whether or not a student is staying home for a “good” reason, and we shouldn’t make assumptions or judge others for how they choose to learn. 

Still, the fact of the matter remains that the majority of students are now learning remotely, raising an important question: Does it make a difference academically if a student chooses to learn remotely? If online learning and in-person learning were equally engaging, then it wouldn’t. However, distance learning is less interactive, less hands-on, and students tend to retain less information. 

“It’s really difficult to want to learn or even try, because there’s no real consequences to not learning when all tests are virtual. Long term, I don’t know if I’ll remember anything I was supposed to learn this year,” said one anonymous student. This disconnect affects teachers as well. 

“For kids in class, it’s easier to be engaged. I don’t feel like I’m reaching the online students,” said Mr. Ralston, a history teacher. Teaching two different groups of students in two different ways at the same time is incredibly difficult.  

There are lots of ways to go forward from here, since it seems unlikely that the number of students in person and online will equalize naturally anytime soon. Now that teachers have had time to get used to this phenomenon, some think it’s time to start working on ways to help teachers instruct and engage with both groups equally. 

“Teachers can engage students by incorporating more activities and calling on a wider variety of students to stop them from not listening,” said Jeremy Serbee, a fully remote senior. Helping teachers better manage both online and in-person student engagement is certainly a sound strategy, but it might not fix everything. A more drastic approach might be called for. 

“I think one way as a district to deal with [the current situation] is to see that if a vast majority of the student population wants to be virtual, it may be best to make school all virtual again,” says Graham. But this threatens the jobs of custodians and cafeteria workers, so is it worth it? 

Some might say that with teachers getting vaccinated, we don’t need to worry about solving this problem as much; soon we will all be back in the building again! But whether vaccination will lead to a change in school regulations is unclear.  

“I don’t think there will be a day when someone says, ‘ok that’s it, everyone come back to school.’ I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen, to be honest,” said Mr. Ralston. 

And, it’s true, too, that we’ve seen some unexpected benefits to remote learning, such as the ability to attend from anywhere. A post-COVID world might include a modified version of the current hybrid model. 

“It kind of offers an opportunity to look at the way we do school normally and if having a remote option would be beneficial for some people,” said Isabella. 

It’s very likely that virtual learning will be incorporated into how the district functions in the future. And in order for that to happen, Hastings students and teachers will have to take a closer look at why students might want to stay home and how best to engage them.