There’s no question that in-school classroom instruction is far superior to virtual education, but the age of the student matters.

It was only a few years ago that many academic experts and scholars laughed at the idea of students taking all of their college courses online. Today degrees earned with exclusively virtual university programs are as accepted as those from institutions with on-the-ground street addresses.

Most college students are in their late teens or early 20s. Others are working adults who have been out of high school for many years, perhaps with 10, 15 or 20 years invested in a career. Younger students in elementary, middle and high schools are different. Perhaps one day we’ll have online learning so well developed that parents might choose virtual education for 6-, 10- and 12-year-olds.

But recent Louisiana public school student test scores show we have a long way to go.

In the 2020-2021 school year, many schools relied on distance learning as an important part of protecting students from the COVID-19 virus. About 3 out of 4 public schools and school districts in the state had test score decreases. The scores dropped 3 points when less than 25% of students relied on distance learning and the decline was nearly double when most or all of a school depended on virtual education. The in-person classroom students did better than their counterparts by 15 points with the academic targets for math, English, science and social studies.

That isn’t surprising. The pandemic started in early 2020 during the 2019-2020 school year. By August 2020, 25% of students were dealing with pandemic issues and COVID-19 safety while lacking internet access needed for school. Across the state, 86% of school systems started the school year with in-person and virtual learning and 9% of students spent the year with distance learning.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sought and received a federal waiver to handle test scores differently in light of the special circumstances. That was a sensible decision given the widespread disruption. Many other states also did so.

The state was allowed to set aside annual letter grades for schools and districts because everyone involved realized that such large numbers of distance-learners for such long stretches would lead to lower scores. Access to broadband internet services was clearly a troublesome factor for many Louisiana families.

We had a big surge with COVID-19’s delta variant in the summer as the new school year was about to begin. Going virtual was the right thing to do to keep our students safe. As we head into the last few months of this school year, COVID-19’s omicron variant is picking up and spreading far too quickly.

We support the efforts of Gov. John Bel Edwards to provide reliable education environments for K-12 and college students by requiring fully approved COVID-19 vaccinations for students to allow them to attend school safely. We support our state, district and school leaders as they continue to balance ways to provide the best education.

The best education is still in-person classroom instruction. Distance learning provides a good, safe option when necessary. It is vital that educators continue to work to make it as effective and reliable as it needs to be.