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Parents and students nationwide have held protests advocating for a full return to classrooms. Credit: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It was the second week of the fall semester when Cassandra Wooten realized her teenage daughter was sinking. The high school junior often spent hours a day on her computer for online school, only to tell her mom at the end of the day that she wasn’t sure she’d learned anything at all. She felt she was trying to teach herself. One night in mid-August, she came to Wooten’s room and proposed going back to in-person classes at her high school in northern Mississippi.

Wooten had decided to enroll her daughter in the DeSoto County School District’s remote learning plan last summer, when infection rates surged across their home state of Mississippi and hospitals ran out of ICU beds. Wooten was determined to keep her only child safe, and felt confident that a computer, quiet space in their home and a good attitude would keep her on track with her peers who were learning in person.

But as it became apparent that her daughter’s experience would consist largely of watching pre-recorded videos from her teachers and pacing though classwork by herself, Wooten lost her optimism. Her daughter was struggling to complete assignments. Sometimes teachers took almost a full week to respond to the girl’s emailed questions. A strong student before the pandemic, her grade in Algebra II slipped to a D. Before the first month of classes ended, Wooten hired a tutor to assist her daughter with the class.

“It’s absolutely pointless to have a program called virtual learning, but there is no opportunity for any virtual learning,” said Wooten, who works as an analyst tracking the arrival of medical supplies needed to combat the pandemic.

Political pressure has been intense for schools in Mississippi to open for in-person instruction. As in other Southern states, the governor has urged full reopening, an idea backed by President Trump and, in many cases, parents desperate for in-person education for their kids. Some districts initially resisted offering online options for students who wanted to stay home. Others eliminated the virtual option for students a few weeks after classes started.

“It’s absolutely pointless to have a program called virtual learning, but there is no opportunity for any virtual learning.”

Cassandra Wooten, parent, DeSoto County, Mississippi

And even in districts like DeSoto, where remote learning is available, families like the Wootens worry their kids have been neglected as schools respond to politicians and parents clamoring for a return to normal. Wooten was among 1,000 individuals there who signed a petition asking that virtual classes include live instruction and more opportunities for remote learners to interact with their teachers.

As the pandemic rages mostly unchecked in much of the country, some of these families wonder if they’re being punished for choosing to keep their kids home.

Bonnie Owen, a parent in Williamson County, Tennessee, grew so fed up with the school district’s remote learning program that she decided to send her son (pictured) back to school this quarter despite the health risks. Credit: Bonnie Owen

Providing an equal education to kids learning in person and to those learning at home is undoubtedly difficult, if not impossible. School officials say they just don’t have the means to do both well without more funding and more teachers. Districts are contending with staffing shortages, technological challenges and scheduling headaches.

Too often, it’s the remote students who are asked to make do with less and, in some cases, learn and complete lessons almost entirely on their own. In others, remote students are placed with in-person learners in classes that have ballooned to up to 60 students and must fight for face-to-face time with teachers who are overworked and overwhelmed.

In an email, Lauren Margeson, executive administrative assistant to the superintendent of DeSoto County, said the decision about how to handle remote learning was left to individual principals in the district, the largest in Mississippi. Some have assigned teachers entirely to working with at-home students; others have not. Margeson added the district recently shortened the length of in-person classes on Fridays, so that teachers could interact more with online students.

Wooten has not been assuaged by the district’s efforts. Her daughter has only been able to join a class by livestream once; individual attention from teachers has been scarce. Wooten said she hasn’t received communication about the changes.

For Bonnie Owen, sending her two children to school in person didn’t seem like an option. Owen, a former teacher and stay-at-home mom in Williamson County, Tennessee, has asthma and her daughter has two autoimmune conditions. The local school district welcomed students back to full-time, in-person classrooms this fall, but Owen worried the risk of exposing her family to the coronavirus was too great.

Owen was comforted by what she heard about the district’s virtual learning plan from school administrators: Children from families like hers would be taught the school district curriculum by district-certified teachers. Before the pandemic, the county had begun offering a handful of online classes designed by the district’s teachers. Owen assumed the new virtual classes would be akin to those.  

“The online students are basically an afterschool activity.”

Bonnie Owen, parent, Williamson County, Tennessee

Now, Owen and other parents in the affluent community outside of Nashville say they feel misled. Just before school started, the district shifted remote learners in middle and high school to Edgenuity, a virtual platform that presents recorded video lessons to students and uses artificial intelligence to grade their performance. While teachers are required to hold check-ins with students in addition to the Edgenuity instruction — weekly for middle schoolers and monthly for high schoolers — parents said those sessions aren’t nearly enough. Teachers, meanwhile, are too burdened by the demands of both instructing the students who have returned to classrooms and those learning from home to provide additional support.  

“The online students are basically an afterschool activity,” said Owen, who added that teachers are “overworked, overloaded and overwhelmed.”

In October, fed up with the quality of remote learning, she decided to send her sixth grade son back to school in person for the second quarter, despite the health risks.

Related: Homework in a McDonald’s parking lot: Inside one mother’s fight to help her children get an education during coronavirus

Dave Allen, assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and assessment for Williamson County Schools, said in an email that the district simply doesn’t have enough teachers, time or resources to build new content for courses and provide students a fully online option. “Edgenuity was chosen to provide teachers course content to align with Tennessee state standards,” he wrote, adding that county teachers have the “ability to replace or supplement” its content “as they see fit.” 

Megan Faison, another Williamson County parent, called the district’s handling of virtual learning “a bait-and-switch.” Faison chose to keep her two sons home because her husband has an underlying medical condition. Like Owen, she felt reassured by what she heard of plans for the virtual option. But the reality, she said, has been “a shock.”

“They literally just dumped this program in our laps and expected us to navigate it,” she said. Her oldest son, an eighth grader who is gifted and dyslexic, has struggled and fallen far behind, she said. The A.I. grading system doesn’t pick up on subtleties of language, say teachers and parents, and marks correct answers incorrect and vice versa.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition protesting the use of the platform and asking the district to stop grading students until the problems with it are fixed. (In an emailed statement, Edgenuity said the platform uses algorithms “not to supplant teacher scoring, only to provide scoring guidance to teachers.”)

As in Mississippi, the problems with remote learning in Williamson are marked by politics. When the school district announced in August that older kids would spend the first two weeks of school online, parents in favor of a full reopening rallied for their children’s immediate return to school buildings. When a high school was shut temporarily because of a coronavirus outbreak in September, parents protested again. Families have also sued the school district over its mask mandate.

Related: Best practices for remote learning, according to experts

The superintendent, Jason Golden, explained in an email to Faison that the district told parents in its public meetings that it “didn’t recommend the online program” but was “providing this option because there were clearly some parents who said they would not be comfortable having their children on campus during the pandemic.”

Faison called his statement a “lie.” She said she would have homeschooled her children if the district had been honest with parents from the start about its plans to move students to Edgenuity.

“It’s become a political thing and it shouldn’t have been,” said Owen.

Owen, Faison and other parents said they wish the district had provided what it promised: county-approved teachers instructing their students and providing individual interaction and support.

Education experts agree that individual attention from teachers is key to keeping online learners on track. But with budget cuts ahead and little hope of more federal help coming soon, experts also say there’s no simple or straightforward way to meet the demands of remote learners, especially in short-staffed districts.

Online learning platforms aren’t necessarily a bad option – but only if they are supplemented by plenty of individual support from teachers, said Ben Cottingham, associate director of strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education, a research center based at Stanford University. He worries that school districts adopted online teaching platforms as a way to cope with staffing shortages without realizing “they were never intended to be the sole instructor for a student’s learning. They were all meant to be supplemental material.”

“In the rush to get back to school in some way that feels normal, a lot of these platforms have gained traction in a way they probably shouldn’t have,” Cottingham said.

Lane McKittrick, a research analyst with the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank based at the University of Washington, said that for many districts, the logistics of reopening schools for in-person teaching absorbed the lion’s share of attention this summer. In a review of charter and district reopening plans in 50 states, her group found that almost a third didn’t specify whether teachers were required to check on students learning remotely. Only 35 of the 106 districts reviewed had information on the amount of instructional time that families could expect.

The lack of district-level guidance when schools shut down last spring meant that students within the same district and even the same household experienced “wide variation in what remote learning looks like,” according to a previous analysis from the group. Without clear expectations for instruction in school reopening plans, the same could play out this fall. “In the absence of that, it’s up to the school and teachers to figure it out on their own which leads to inequity,” McKittrick said.

Amanda Loeffler, a parent in Pinellas County, Florida, opted to keep her kids in the school district’s remote learning program this fall because of the coronavirus. But teachers are trying to educate the kids who have stayed home and those who are taking classes in person simultaneously, which has meant that students like her daughter, Rainey (pictured), are receiving very little instruction. Credit: Amanda Loeffler

Some parents said their request for live instruction could easily be accomplished with the use of a platform like Zoom. McKittrick cautioned that approach can come with its own challenges if teachers are assigned to instruct students physically in the classroom along with those at home. “To do it right,” she said, “you might need more staff in the classroom.”

The rush to return children to classrooms has left districts with the duty to provide quality instruction and no good options for doing so. In Florida, schools scrambled to comply with a July state order threatening funding cuts unless they began offering in-person learning five days a week starting the next month. Many parents opted to keep their kids home anyway, and in some cases, districts encouraged this option in order to thin the number of students returning to school buildings.

To educate both sets of students, some districts opted for what might seem like the simplest path: letting online learners tune in to the in-person classes through video conferencing. That way, in theory, everyone would get the same instruction by the same teachers. But the approach hasn’t gone well for anyone, teachers and parents said, and especially for the kids who’ve stayed home.

Janet Cunningham, a special education teacher in Pinellas County, said teachers are teaching into their computer cameras at the front of classrooms, while students in the room crowd around a limited number of devices and try to follow the virtual lesson. As lousy as that experience is for the in-person students, she said, it’s often worse for the kids at home. (The district did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Although they are saying we are providing a rigorous education, I don’t believe that’s the case.”

Janet Cunningham, teacher, Pinellas County, Florida

“You pay attention to the ones that are right in front of you,” Cunningham said. “Although they are saying we are providing a rigorous education, I don’t believe that’s the case.”

Amanda Loeffler, who has three kids in Pinellas County schools, said her two middle schoolers, who beam in to in-person classes via Microsoft Teams, get little support from teachers. She and other parents said the district gave the impression in pamphlets and on its website ahead of the school year that at-home learners would have dedicated teachers. Now, nearly 3,000 people have signed a petition accusing the district of misleading parents and calling for designated teachers for online students.

Related: Schedules for distance learning are all over the place (and it’s making parents crazy)

In Mississippi, some districts took the step of livestreaming in-person instruction or assigning dedicated teachers to virtual classes. But, as frustrations with online learning have boiled over, others are simply ending the option for students to stay at home.

In the Gulf Coast school district of Jackson County, most remote learners now face two options: Come back on campus, or withdraw. At the start of the second quarter in October, 60 percent of students enrolled in the remote program had an F in at least one class. And 40 percent were failing at least two subjects. Another district, Lamar County, announced that children in pre-K through fifth grade must have a medical exemption in order to continue online lessons.

In DeSoto County, 17 students and 12 staff members have been diagnosed with Covid-19 since the beginning of the school year. Infection rates have started to increase across the state again, after the lift of Mississippi’s mask mandate. (Masks are still required in schools.) Wooten’s not ready for her daughter to return to Southaven High School.

Still, she has had one small victory this fall. After her daughter received a low score on a history test, the teacher offered to let the teenager watch a live-streamed history class. Wooten said the teacher’s in-person advice about how to prepare for an upcoming exam was much stronger than the guidance provided to remote students. On the test, her daughter received an A, she said.

Wooten felt vindicated. It was “proof positive that the whole concept of live teaching is very beneficial to the student,” she said. But, there are no guarantees that administrators will accommodate her requests going forward.

This story about school reopenings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

Caroline Preston is a senior editor. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Her freelance writing has...

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