Is Long-Term Distance Learning Leading To Educational Atrophy? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

David Gaudi

Dr. David Gaudi is the Saint Mark Lutheran School Head of School and a Hawaii Children's Action Network board member. He is also a Hawaii Association of Independent Schools board member and the vice chair of the Accrediting Commission for Schools -- Western Association of Schools and Colleges.


Mid-September marks six months since schools in Hawaii and all across America were forced to close their doors to on-campus instruction due to the rapid proliferation of the novel coronavirus. Schools and students were immediately thrust into a digital learning world that many were ill equipped to endure.

While some schools and districts managed to quickly pivot to a successful distance learning environment, many others gave it a valiant effort only to throw in the proverbial towel essentially conceding the final quarter of the 2019-20 school year.

Following this spring capitulation, the hope for many schools was that the summer months would be used to carefully plan for the safe re-opening of campuses while the virus quietly subsided. Unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of examples, neither of those aspirations came to fruition.

Rather, the virus is still widely and dramatically impacting much of America, and schools are largely still online.

COVID Not Going Away Soon

Hawaii is no different. After a terrible August that saw over 6,000 new COVID-19 cases and over 40 deaths, we currently find ourselves in a difficult predicament that includes a second stay-at-home order for Oahu, continued statewide travel restrictions, and all DOE schools as well as many private schools primarily instructing online.

An empty classroom. We need to get our kids back on campus.

Robert Pollack via Flickr

This already troubling reality — where most of Hawaii’s children have not sat in an actual classroom for six months — becomes almost untenable when one realizes that there is no cohesive plan to bring our students back to campus anytime soon.

Just as few would have predicted last March that our students would still be distance learning come September, there probably aren’t many today who believe distance learning will stretch well into 2021. But it could happen!

Pros And Cons

With the ubiquity of distance learning programs in Hawaii schools, one does not have to go far to hear parents, educators and government officials share the purported benefits or incriminating convictions of the various programs.

Some claim that distance learning programs are a viable alternative to in-person instruction that can provide students with the academic rigor and intellectual engagement needed to keep their neural synapses stimulated. Yet others claim that these programs are incredibly inequitable and fall woefully short in meeting the social and emotional needs of the students.

Learning And Life Skills

What has not been discussed as frequently are the adverse effects of long-term distance learning — especially on those less tangible skills/competencies that aren’t necessarily acquired in a specific class, course or subject area but rather are ascertained by doing, living, and interacting with others. One might refer to these skills or competencies as “life skills.”

The World Health Organization identifies six key areas of life skills: 1) communication and interpersonal skills; 2) decision-making and problem-solving; 3) creative and critical thinking; 4) self-awareness and empathy; 5) assertiveness or self-control; and 6) resiliency and the ability to cope with problems.
 Within these key areas, specific skills can be identified as important in a child’s development.

For example, some might assert that specific competencies such as leadership; sportsmanship; cooperation; collaboration, courage; confidence; discipline; and relationship building are a few of the valuable life skills that are part of a complete education.

However, the ability to attain or retain these skills while remote learning for months at a time is certainly debatable.

Educational Atrophy

Are these life skills deteriorating as our children spend countless hours in front of screens rather than in front of classmates? Are they deteriorating as our children’s daily routines entail navigating the familiarity of their homes rather than the complexities of campuses, classrooms, and playgrounds?

The concern that we should all share is that the longer our children spend in a distance learning environment the more complacent they might become. And over time this complacency can breed apathy which can eventually lead to atrophy.

Just as the biceps and triceps muscles of the upper arm atrophy (degeneration, decline, or decrease, as from disuse) when immobilized inside a cast, life skills learned and nurtured in our children can wither when they go unused for extended periods of time.

Get Kids On Campus

The current educational model in the midst of these very challenging and uncertain times appears in large part to be one where our schools continually push back their opening campus dates hoping to receive the ever-illusive positive COVID-19 news that will unfortunately not soon arrive.

Rather than waiting for vaccines or other remedies that are many months away, one possibility is for schools to seize those opportunities when local virus levels and transmission rates are relatively low or on the decline (as is the case currently in Hawaii) and consider bringing their students back to campus if even for only a few weeks. Having the students go to school face-to-face even for a short duration can help to awaken those skills and competencies that may otherwise lie dormant from inactivity.

Most of Hawaii’s children have not sat in an actual classroom for six months.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing plan where bringing students back to campus is a permanent decision.

A better long-term strategy may be to take a more fluid approach where schools move back and forth between distance learning and in-person instruction depending on the school and community conditions.

Admittedly, this fluidity could be disruptive to parents struggling to balance work and family responsibilities, but the potential benefits of a return to campus are hard to ignore. And of course, any endeavor to bring students and staff back to campus has to be done very thoughtfully with a comprehensive and well-communicated plan that includes proven safety protocols and strictly enforced preventive measures.

The health concerns surrounding COVID-19 are indisputable; however, the concerns surrounding a generation of children who with every passing day are being deprived of critical learning opportunities are also worthy of our attention. No one can definitively predict how this prolonged sequestration will affect our young learners in the years to come.

But what we should know is that we need to think creatively and work collaboratively to get Hawaii’s keiki safely back on campus as soon as possible. Their future depends on it!

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About the Author

David Gaudi

Dr. David Gaudi is the Saint Mark Lutheran School Head of School and a Hawaii Children's Action Network board member. He is also a Hawaii Association of Independent Schools board member and the vice chair of the Accrediting Commission for Schools -- Western Association of Schools and Colleges.


Latest Comments (0)

Aloha, Dr. Gaudi,Thank you for your insight on this current issue. I couldn't agree with your more. As a 4th grade teacher at Sacred Hearts in Lahaina, we worked very hard over the summer months to put protocols in place to insure the safety of our faculty, staff, and students. We are now in our 8th week of on campus learning and could not be happier!!! I hope you and your family are happy and healthy. Much Aloha,Wyndy Quandt

WyndyQ · 1 month ago

Students will probably adapt just fine with online learning. Save money on school clothes and meals, save time to get to school, don't have to deal with bullies or getting into fights. Move forward not backwards, technology is here to stay and can only get better. 

Haleloooo · 1 month ago

I've been a special ed. teacher for 15 yrs and have 2 kids of my own. One in 11th grade, one in college. Both went to public schools. If kids need to learn from home until it's safe, in the long run they will be okay. They, and their families, will be alive. This is the most important value, which cannot be lost. Most of my students are fine with online learning. Those not attending regularly lack services such as stable housing and utilities like internet and electricity. This isn't an educational problem, but one caused by economic insecurity, which can be helped by social services. Fretting about regressing in social skills means ignoring the fact that the majority of kids in Hawaii live with multigenerational families including siblings and cousins. They learn social skills within extended families. As far as their academics, online learning is fine for now. Teachers and students are doing their best, and doing it safely, so we can stay healthy and alive.

El1zabeth · 1 month ago

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