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What We've Lost: Education

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the pandemic continues to change Americans' lives in countless ways, an overwhelming feeling unites many of us. It's a feeling of loss, whether it's losing a job, a loved one or just a sense of normalcy. A collective grieving process is underway.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, for parents and students, the loss of school is more than just a building. It can be a social life, a community, a full belly and a full mind. And even as teachers are working harder than ever to educate students virtually, for those in front of the screen and those behind it, something is still missing.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Getting online school, you can't run around or throw a ball inside your house, especially when, like me, your home has no backyard, and it's a small apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My oldest son has ADD/ADHD combination. And, you know, virtual learning, just sitting in front of a screen for hours, is not how he learns.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: A lot of my friends are failing - failing most of their classes or barely passing. And they have a lot of missing assignments.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I also miss just, like, getting to talk to other people, getting to actually interact with them and speak freely, you know, without having to turn on a mute button. Being there in person is part of the experience in school, and that's kind of what gets you a better education.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: It's really hard 'cause, like, you can't be with people. Like, my friends and I can't because of the virus. Like, they're doing it online. But it's not the same to do it on, like, Zoom or something. It's hard not to do some of this stuff in person.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Learning instruments and music is just not possible in online school. If you really want to learn the violin during online school but you don't have a violin, how could you learn?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: It is really, really unsettling. And I think people don't realize, like, how much we need to see these kids. A lot of times in schools, we are the first line for seeing signs of child abuse, for seeing signs of food insecurity. And you don't have that with virtual students, especially when they ghost.

KELLY: Impressions there from students and parents and teachers. And that last thought we heard about ghosting - it is a real problem for school workers who are tasked with tracking attendance, teachers and administrators who feel like they are losing students.

KAREN SMITH: They find ways to disappear when they don't want to be found.

SHAPIRO: That's Karen Smith, who teaches in a rural area on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Even before the pandemic, skipping class could be tempting for kids who found school overwhelming. And when you add virtual school and spotty connections, it becomes a slippery slope.

SMITH: Many of our students and even our faculty and staff don't have reliable Internet, which has been a major issue going forward. We experimented with portable Wi-Fi. And in our neck of the woods, that's not really a feasible thing because you have to have a signal to bounce off of. And in some cases, they're rural enough that they don't have that option.

EVAN MURRAY: The Wi-Fi has been - it's been problematic for everybody.

KELLY: Evan Murray works for Baltimore City Schools, three hours northwest of Smith's school district. Urban Baltimore might seem like a different world, but families at his school have many of the same problems.

SHAPIRO: The two areas have nearly identical poverty levels, at more than 20%. So when a student falls out of touch, there is more than just missed lessons to worry about.

MURRAY: Our kids already rely on the teachers and the staff for a lot of different levels of support - you know, food and health care resources. Like, it's a challenge 'cause in one front, we still have to prepare for academics and make sure that the teachers are educating the students appropriately. But then there's that human aspect. You know, we have a bunch of kids that - they relied on, you know, the morning breakfast programs and lunch programs at the school to eat throughout the days.

The sad thing is that there's a possibility that some parents, you know, whether there's a lot of pride or just the availability of traveling to it, they can't get it. The principal said we need to communicate and check on our babies, our scholars, and make sure they're fine.

SMITH: It's really created a hardship for those families. And I think that that is one of the reasons that there has been such a push to go back to school in person.

MURRAY: Today, I spent about 1:30 until 3:30 trying to contact 13 - I think it was, like, 13 kids because there's still a number of students who, you know, we haven't gotten - we haven't made contact with.

SMITH: Some students are kind of in and out of touch. There's one student that I have who I haven't heard from her for I don't know how long. And I'm - one of the common themes with me and some of my colleagues are that we don't necessarily know what our students look like. They could walk in my room face-to-face, and I will have absolutely no idea. And it's odd. Some of them I'm not even sure I've heard their voices.

MURRAY: We just have to be relentless with this process. This is different. And you can't go in this like you're waiting and wishing for students to come back. It's not going to happen.

KELLY: Educators Evan Murray and Karen Smith in Maryland. With the COVID-19 vaccine starting to circulate and a new year on the horizon, schools are beginning to make tentative plans to reopen and resume in-person learning.

SHAPIRO: But some students may not come back. There's a concern that some kids have made a permanent transition away from school life and that schools have lost some of their students for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHWICK SONG, "LYING IN THE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.