Students Weigh in on COVID-19: It’s Time to Listen

Jen Vorse Wilka

What 20,000 students have to say about their learning experiences this spring is critical to the path ahead.

Education in the United States, as across the globe, changed dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools around the country to close this spring, with more than 50 million students being asked to learn remotely. With the outlook for schools suddenly looking so different, we find ourselves in a moment of both urgency and opportunity to best serve students. Yet, while there have been numerous surveys of teachers and families, there has been very little firsthand data from students themselves during this unprecedented time.

That’s why YouthTruth, a national nonprofit housed within CEP, launched a free, national survey this spring to gather insights from secondary students and bring them to the field quickly — so that educators and education funders can adapt their approaches, target support where it’s needed most, and keep students at the center of their decision-making. As philanthropy seeks to shift power dynamics and listen more deeply to the people and communities they seek to help, student voices and experiences must be at the heart of efforts to reimagine school.

In this moment of significant change, YouthTruth wanted to better understand how students have perceived their learning experiences, social-emotional development, and well-being while their school sites have been closed. What is working relatively well and where are we falling short — and for which groups of students?

The Students Weigh In: Learning & Well-Being During COVID-19 survey solicited feedback from 5th to 12th grade students, who shared their insights through a 12-minute online survey available in English and Spanish. The survey was fielded from May 11 – June 19 and yielded responses from more than 20,000 students from 166 schools across nine states.

The results are in, and here’s what we learned.

Despite much focus in recent months on questions of access and the mechanics of schooling, school logistics worked relatively well from students’ perspective. Nonetheless, remote learning still didn’t result in a lot of learning during school closures this spring. It was an especially challenging time for Black and Latinx students, who faced more obstacles to learning than other students, and for female students and students who identify in another way, who struggled more with mental health and well-being than did male students.

Key findings of our analysis include:

  1. Only half of students said their teachers give them assignments that really help them learn, and just 39 percent said they learn a lot every day.
  2. Seventy percent of students reported obstacles to their virtual learning. Distractions at home and feeling depressed, stressed, and anxious were the most frequently cited obstacles. Black and Latinx students faced a greater “obstacle load” than did other students.
  3. Relationships with teachers were a bright spot, while students’ sense of belonging suffered.
  4. Female students and students who identify in another way rated their health and well-being less positively than did male students.
  5. One in five high school seniors’ post-secondary plans have changed.

Understandably, the response to emergency distance learning this spring prioritized a hierarchy of needs — with access to internet, devices, and food topping the crisis response. Now, students’ voices have made clear to us that equity and emotional and mental health must be top of mind as schools re-open this fall. And their feedback underscores the need to adapt teaching and learning to a new and evolving school environment.

It is now becoming clear that school will look quite different for most students this fall, with a blend of in-person and virtual learning for many students, fully virtual for others, and fully in-person for some. As we gain a better understanding of the diverging experiences of certain groups of students — as well as the lack of true learning and connection taking place for most — there is an opportunity for educators and education funders to listen to students’ feedback as they adjust to the new normal of school this fall.

More than 20,000 students spoke up in our Students Weigh In survey. Young people are speaking up in their schools and communities across the country. As we move forward, we must hear their voices and take them to heart.

Jen Vorse Wilka is executive director of YouthTruth. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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