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Why are students not showing up for virtual learning

Amanda ClarkMarch 17, 2021

Boy doing his homeworks on a laptop

The New York Times found that approximately 3,000 students in a San Antonio school district didn’t participate in virtual learning at the beginning of the pandemic. Three thousand! Unfortunately, numbers like these have become the norm. Being an educator is never easy, but 2020 presented us with a whole new set of challenges, one of which was dealing with student absences in the world of virtual learning.

To add to the dilemma, educators often can’t reach these kids, so they are referred to by some as “The Lost Kids of Covid.”

As a former educator and someone who has been researching online student trends during the pandemic, I’ve observed firsthand the different reasons why students do not show up for their online courses. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no simple answer. 

To gain a better understanding of this issue, let’s begin with what virtual learning is in the first place.

What is virtual learning?

Virtual learning is the delivery of instructional content to students via the internet. There is more than one way to teach online classes:

  • Live online classes with a teacher
  • Self-paced online learning with pre-made lessons and modules (asynchronous learning)
  • A combination of both

Download now! Classcraft’s Virtual PBIS Playbook

There are pros and cons to virtual learning

Before the pandemic, most schools offered online as a choice or alternative to face-to-face learning. However, these days, due to CDC recommendations of social distancing, more traditional schools have transitioned to virtual education, some of them almost overnight.

Needless to say, this transition was a challenge! A survey conducted by Education Next found that 71% of parents felt their kids learned less online than they did in a traditional classroom. Yet, surprisingly, the study also found that 72% of parents were satisfied with their children’s virtual learning.

The point is that virtual learning may never reach the standards of traditional in-person learning. But with programs like Classcraft, reliable LMS platforms, and online activities that are always being improved, virtual learning really isn’t all that bad when it’s executed correctly. 

Despite these improvements in virtual education, though, student attendance remains a problem. And as educators know, we can’t teach remotely if our students don’t attend online learning classes.

So before delving into the different reasons why students may not show up for their online courses, we’ll explore the teacher’s perspective and look at the obstacles that contribute to this issue.

What challenges do teachers face during a pandemic?

Here are some challenges that teachers have faced while transitioning to virtual learning during the pandemic.

More work and prep

Many teachers conducting virtual classes during the pandemic are not used to online learning; they’re familiar with students learning in person. This lack of virtual experience results in more prep time to figure out how to conduct online lessons. 

New technology

Again, many teachers are best prepared for traditional, not remote, learning. Because of this, they may be unfamiliar with virtual learning platforms, or they may need a technology primer and help with setting up assignments and lessons in their LMS.

Obstacles of working from home

With remote work on the rise, people are noticing that it’s not always a walk in the park. For starters, roughly 48% of teachers have children of their own that they must now take care of while simultaneously juggling their teaching responsibilities. This can easily lead to teacher burnout.

Trouble defining work and personal boundaries 

In a traditional school setting, teachers have a designated quiet place to work and focus. This may not be the case at home. At school, they also adhere to a more concrete schedule. But at home, it’s a challenge to ignore those dishes, and a host of other chores, while you’re emailing your class or delivering a live lesson.

Increased stress

Yes, we’re all stressed, but teaching anxiety has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Teachers are dealing with unfamiliar curricula, large class sizes, their own family lives, and much more. When students don’t show up for virtual learning, that only compounds the stress for teachers—because it means they may have to call parents or seek help from their administration.

Lack of attendance

Student absence in a virtual learning environment affects teachers in a number of ways. Teachers spend time trying to contact students, assigning makeup work, and, in some cases, adapting the format of their online classes or assignments to accommodate fewer students.

A report by Behavioral Scientists Policy researchers Melissa Deliberti, Laura Hamilton, and Julia Kaufman presented these key findings:

  • Teachers mentioned the lack of support to handle virtual learning as a primary concern
  • Teacher training, stress management, and proper equipment could decrease student absences

Like educators, students face numerous obstacles when it comes to virtual learning—even more so than they did with traditional schooling.

What are some different reasons why some students aren’t showing up for their virtual learning courses?

1. Inconsistent internet (or complete lack thereof)

According to Pew Research, nearly 43% of low-income parents with school-aged students participating in online learning said that they would likely have to rely on public Wi-Fi. Even public Wi-Fi is hard to find in rural towns, so some students give up on the search altogether. Not only that, but it’s simply not secure for students to use because anyone can connect to a public network.

Also, consider that even households with access to the internet can experience network problems. Internet service providers have faced their own challenges during the pandemic, like a substantial increase in traffic.

2. Household responsibilities

This USA FACTS headline says it all: “4.4 million households with children don’t have consistent computer access for online learning during the pandemic.”

The pandemic has also affected households in terms of childcare. Some families choose not to send their kids to daycare, and many centers have been forced to shut down.

In some households, older siblings have taken on the role of caretaker to help their parents. 

Here are some other roles kids have taken on during the pandemic:

  • Cooking
  • Housework
  • Helping siblings out with their virtual learning
  • Yard work

All these household duties make it more difficult for students to show up for online learning.

3. Lack of, or malfunctioning, equipment

In addition to a lack of internet, many students also lack access to a computer. According to a study conducted by USA FACTS, of the 52 million households with children, “74% always had access to a computer for educational purposes in September, and 16% had access most of the time.” Many students are not showing up to online learning simply because they don’t have the necessary equipment to attend online classes. 

4. Students are sick, or quarantined with someone who is sick

Although COVID-19 is not as common in youth, the CDC reported 277,285 laboratory-confirmed cases in school-aged children in the United States between March and September of 2020.  

Students may also be home with a sick family member. These factors could make it more difficult for students to attend online classes since other responsibilities may take priority.

5. Little, to no, academic support at home

Some students, especially those with working parents, don’t have the adult support they need to participate in virtual learning. 

Parents influence students’ online attendance by:

  • Reminding them to log in
  • Keeping track of schedules
  • Assisting them with technological issues
  • Helping them with homework

The pandemic has affected households in multiple ways, and some parents now face more challenges with virtual learning than ever before:

  • They are too busy working
  • They are unfamiliar with educational content or tech
  • They are sick
  • They are taking care of younger children
  • They need a computer for their work

The list goes on.

6. Lack of motivation

The Psychiatric Times found that children’s mental health during COVID-19 decreased.

Peer interaction is key to many children’s development, but with virtual learning, this component of school doesn’t exist. This can make it more difficult for youth to attend school, as they may lack the motivation that comes from social interaction.

To put it more directly, for some students living in a worldwide pandemic, school is the last thing on their minds, and motivation is plummeting

7. Inadequate workspace

You may think this is a poor excuse, but how can students focus without a proper workspace? From TVs blaring, to the chaos of everyday life, if they don’t have a designated place to concentrate on virtual learning, how will they get anything done?

8. Inconsistent incentives

Some schools have thrown out attendance policies and/or grades due to the pandemic. While some students remain motivated to login to virtual learning, others might not see the incentive to do so.

One step at a time

There are plenty of reasons why students are not showing up for remote education, and this issue is not as simple as it may seem. 

Online education during a worldwide pandemic presents several unprecedented variables, including limited teacher support, household responsibilities, sickness, and a lack of resources.

So, where do we go from here? 

Schools and educators need to address one problem at a time. Here are some questions that may guide you in the right direction:

  1. How well are we supporting our teachers?
  2. How are we helping students who lack an internet connection or computers?
  3. How stable are our students’ households?
  4. What are our attendance policies on quarantined or sick students?

We can keep adding to the list, but during these overwhelming times, let’s take things one step at a time.

Photo: Pexels / Valery

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Distance Learning - Student Engagement

Decreasing disciplines: A school's success story

How did East Paulding Middle School reduce discipline referrals by 85%?

Learn more