Telling Tales Out of School

What the profound disruption of distance learning has to teach us.

March 2021

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Illustration of Kathy Zonana.

On the morning I sat down to write this column, a headline caught my eye. It was about increased teen suicides in Las Vegas and the worry that they could be linked to school shutdowns.

I understand the fear. Last March, my son lost access to both of his social lifelines—high school and wheelchair sports—in a single afternoon. As the school district scrambled to cobble together a distance-learning plan, days of isolation turned into weeks.

So many of us parents spent last spring commiserating over our kids’ schooling, noticing differences between public and private, richer and poorer, wriggly preschooler and lonely preteen. 

It’s easy to second-guess the decision to shut down most schools 12 months ago, and localities’ varying choices to return fully in person, as a hybrid or not at all since then. It’s harder to remedy the situation.  

But that’s what professors in the Graduate School of Education are working to do. In our cover story, they explain that it’s too soon to assess the full effects of the pandemic on learning, child development or mental health. That said, they are acutely aware that the past year has exposed and exacerbated inequities: Not every student has a screen, can connect to the internet from their screen or feels comfortable turning on the camera on their screen. In a particularly poignant vignette, special education professor Christopher Lemons recounts working with a 7-year-old who kept walking around his computer, expecting to find Lemons behind it.

‘Distance learning has demonstrated the merits of techniques education scholars have been recommending for years.’

When a system has been as disrupted as K–12 education has been over the past year, it provides an opportunity to examine and rebuild it. Schools of the future may do less teaching to the test, as distance learning has demonstrated the merits of techniques education scholars have been recommending for years, including project-based learning and assessments that demonstrate understanding rather than rote recall. And while no one would recommend videoconferencing as a primary mode of educating children, teachers say some of the other tech tools they’ve adopted give them a better handle on which students are keeping up and which ones need extra support. 

As for the bedroom/classroom down the hall, the single pupil in attendance has been in much better spirits lately, largely because online school has been richer this year than last. “The teachers are working really hard,” he says. “I wonder if they know that it’s not as good.”

After reading our story, I can tell him for certain: They do.

Illustration: Giorgia Virgili

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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