The 2019-2020 school year was unprecedented for students, teachers, parents, and just about everyone else. With school out for the summer we are collecting and reflecting on students’ experiences with education in the age of COVID-19 – the courage, flexibility, and growth they displayed this spring, as well as their concerns about the necessity for connection, support, and empathy.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we often concentrate our efforts on practitioners in the field of education. However, it is crucial that we understand the perceptions and experiences of those who will be ultimately impacted by our work: K-12 public school students. Across the country, districts, education support providers, and researchers have worked to collect information on students’ sentiments, their experiences with remote learning, and which supports or services would be most beneficial.

Our partners at The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) recently released a blog post on highlights from COVID-19 Student Surveys. Their in-depth analysis of 76 student surveys elevates commonalities in how students across the country experienced school closures. CRPE highlights students’ reception of remote learning and the impacts of social isolation, and gives insight into how students would like to return to school.

In this blog post, we share some of the similar themes we noticed as we looked through a smaller group of student perception surveys. We will focus on Alexandria County Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia, Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) in Florida, California state (through the Youth Liberty Squad and ACLU of SoCal [ACLU]), Washington state (through the Center for Educational Excellence [CEE]), and Kentucky’s high schoolers (through the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team), who have graciously posted their survey results publicly on their websites. We also look at national results from YouthTruth, which surveyed 5th through 12th graders, and America’s Promise Alliance (APA), which focused specifically on high school students.

Remote learning was tough. There is considerable anxiety about the future – particularly for older students.

In YouthTruth’s national survey, only 26% of students said they learned a lot everyday compared to their usual school experience. Nearly 1 in 3 students (29%) shared that their teachers gave them assignments that helped them learn compared to before school closures. Students expressed reasonable concern about the present and future. This is particularly striking among high school students. While 93% of ACPS students in grades 3 – 5 agree they’re making academic progress, this falls to 81% for students in grades 6 – 8 and 73% for students in grades 9 – 12. In CEE’s March survey of Washington high school students, 89% stated that they felt hopeful about their future – this fell to 75% eight weeks later.

Students generally felt connected to school adults.

Over half of YouthTruth student respondents (54%) said there is an adult from school they can talk to when they’re feeling upset, stressed, or having problems. The feeling of connection with school adults differs by survey. In ACPS, 74% of students feel connected to their school and teacher(s) and 64% of BCPS students stated they had talked with a school adult in the past week. The feeling of connection also varies for different groups of students. In the national APA survey, 29% of high school students say they do not feel connected at all to school adults. Additionally, Latino high school students describe feeling less connected to school adults than white or Black high school students. Regardless of demographic or geography, Prichards’ analysis finds that “students are yearning for more connection and empathy and also empathizing more with teachers.”

This connection is important because students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and succeed academically if they believe there are adults in school that care about their learning as well as about them as individuals.[i] Students who feel connected to school adults are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, have better school attendance, and stay in school longer.[ii]

Across all geographies, there is a strong, urgent need for mental health support.

Coming through consistently and loudly across all these surveys is the necessity and importance of mental health supports and services for students across the country. Since their school buildings closed, students’ indicators of overall health and wellbeing have suffered. In Kentucky, many students report “feeling more depression, anxiety and a sense of worthlessness.” In the APA survey, 30% of high school students say they have been feeling unhappy or depressed more often. In the ACLU survey, students express feeling bored, lonely, overwhelming, and anxious. The stress extends beyond the individual: 27% of students in BCPS said they were extremely concerned about the health of their family and friends.

Prichard’s survey shows that since school buildings closed, students have been losing their mental health services and find themselves needing and wanting more. This is mirrored in the ACLU survey – 32% of students who had previously not received mental health services feel they may now require services.

Districts have attempted to address these needs: 61% of students in ACPS’ survey state that their school suggested tools or resources to support social and emotional well-being, and 57% said they were helpful. However, there may be disparities in the distribution or efficacy of these supports. In the APA survey, high schoolers living in rural areas were less likely than youth living in cities or suburbs to report that adults from their school offered tools or resources to support their social and emotional well-being.

It is also important to consider how students might receive these supports under current circumstances. Ninety-two percent of students in the BCPS survey replied they did not want to talk privately with a school adult about their well-being or mental health. It may be necessary to provide multiple opportunities for students to get help, either by directly asking for it or otherwise.

We need to acknowledge and support what students do outside of school.

Students across the country have responsibilities and concerns outside of school. 64% of students in the YouthTruth survey stated that distractions at home made it difficult to do the at-home learning opportunities provided by their schools. In the APA survey, 39% of youth reported being more concerned about their family’s financial situation since school closed in March. Those living in cities were 12% more likely to report being concerned about their family’s financial situation than youth living in towns.

In BCPS, 31% of students take care of someone in their family during part of the day, and 14% for most of the day. It is clear there is an imperative need to acknowledge the hard work that students undertake outside of school to be able to provide the support and services to keep them on the path to success.

We need to continue to look at other aspects of students’ educational experiences and how they changed during COVID-19.

A lot of these surveys center around the remote learning experience and school supports. However, the school experience extends far beyond getting instruction from a teacher. There are many student thoughts we don’t hear because they don’t get asked in surveys. To alleviate this, it is crucial to include student voice in the creation and design of student surveys. For example, the Prichard Committee survey was crafted by their Student Voice Team, which is made up of 100 self-selected students. In their survey, they found that cyberbullying has actually decreased since COVID-19 closed schools. These topics may not always be top of mind for practitioners (or funders), and therefore we need to incorporate the perspectives and priorities of students in order to not miss out on important information. At the foundation, we are applying student voices for a “user-centered design” approach to the research and development of educational solutions.

Conclusion

Districts and organizations continue to research how students are doing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented changes to schools. Looking at student perception surveys across the country, we see that there are consistent themes that frequently come up. We also see there are areas where local context may have contributed to different experiences for students. Everywhere, though, we see examples of how students faced challenges and opportunities, both unique and collective. Through this, students demonstrated perseverance through uncertainty and voiced the very real support that they need from the adults and systems in their lives.

As districts start to plan for reopening schools and the future of education, we urge practitioners, researchers, and funders to not only consider student experience but make sure that it is integrated in the work that we take on. Only then can we create services and support that build upon students’ capabilities and capacities.


[i] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing
Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[ii] Klem, A. and Connell, J. (2004). Relationships matter: linking teacher support to student engagement
and achievement. Journal of School Health 2004;74(7):262-273.