Amplifying Diverse Student Voice Amid a Global Pandemic

By Jessica Lawrence -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges, and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that no one individual or entity has all of the answers. Up to this point, decisions made in education as a result of COVID have been based on the collective voices of health experts, federal, state and district leaders, elected officials and occasionally families and teachers. These decision makers have weighed in on how to best tackle the shift to remote learning, and now, schools reopening. As a former educator, this begs the question, what about students who have to endure the inevitable consequences of those decisions? Where is their voice and who is valuing it?

Since mid-March, when schools closed and learning went remote, surveys have been used as the main vehicle to capture stakeholder input and expertise. Out of the 76 national surveys conducted during the pandemic, the Center for Reinventing Public Education cites that only 7 of them were targeted towards the K-12 student community and only 4 had representative samples.

When large scale school closures began, HCM Strategists was in the process of obtaining qualitative student input on behalf of a state advocacy coalition with the goal of establishing a student voice cohort. As a part of that research, I conducted informal interviews with a group of students to help inform and develop a regionally specific COVID-19 related student survey. The testimonies they shared with me about their schools closing, lacking adequate one-on-one time with their teachers and missing their friends aligned with many of the major themes cited from national student surveys that should be explored and monitored continuously.

The most prominent elephant in the room is the digital divide. Online surveys have been the most common method to get student input to accommodate social distancing. But given that many states and districts are still trying to solve the digital divide, it has created an additional, inequitable barrier to hearing from students in most need. Students without access to reliable devices and internet connection are completely cut off from the world, let alone their education, during a time that is reliant on minimal social interaction and auspicious information. An EdWeek Research Center survey of district leaders and teachers during the early stages of COVID-19 found that teachers and leaders at all levels (from predominantly low-income districts) were unable to reach 19-27% of their students. Of those low-income students, many were cited to be experiencing homelessness, which is predicted to grow as a result of COVID-19 related layoffs and other fiscal setbacks. Needless to say, there is an entire student population that cannot be reached to provide input on a school experience they have no access to.

Not surprisingly, student engagement during remote learning was minimal and inconsistent. A key finding of a Common Sense Media’s national student poll was that 24% of teens were meeting with their teachers less than once a week and 41% have not attended an online class since their school was closed. This mirrors the findings from the student interviews I conducted, where many students shared that they only met with teachers if they didn’t understand an assignment. For some, that was a win because they could move quicker through assignments they felt confident doing independently. But for those who struggled, it made things more difficult especially when teachers assigned extra material to “make-up” for what they weren’t doing in-person. Almost all of the students I spoke with expressed missing having a teacher in-person to answer questions in real time. Students also mentioned the differing types of instruction and expectations from their teachers, which ranged from having videos of their teachers delivering a lesson to reading and applying a new skill all on their own. There is no question that many educators have gone above and beyond to accommodate students’ new remote learning environments. However, there is still work to be done, especially since remote learning is expected to continue into next year in many places.

The final, and most concerning trend is the social and emotional impact of COVID-19, specifically on students of color and youth whose parents were born outside of the US. Several factors have contributed towards the decline in students’ emotional and cognitive health. Many have taken on new and existing familial obligations, job loss, not feeling “connected” to their peers and teachers and are worried about the unknown implications of future career opportunities. For example, one of the students I spoke with expressed that she had taken on more responsibilities at home, like caring for her younger siblings and older grandparents, because both of her parents were essential workers. Another student shared that he lost one of his three jobs and was thankful that his school provided him a laptop because he wouldn’t have been able to afford one on his own. Our Turn surveyed over 235 students, where 82% of respondents identified as students of color, and found “the majority of students – 65% – state that their mental health has worsened, and 56% are concerned about their mental health in both the short- and long-term.” Systemic inequities existed before COVID-19, but these surveys and informal interviews have magnified the need for leaders to seek the input of students even more than before.

A recent FurtureEd report recognized the importance of conducting student climate surveys to determine students’ social-emotional and academic needs. The report also cited a suite of free school climate surveys (curated by the Department of Education under the Obama administration) for schools, districts and states to adopt. Climate surveys are a simple and effective way for school and district leaders to hear from students and use their input to inform decisions. For students who have historically been marginalized due to systemic inequities, climate surveys play a vital role in identifying barriers to success, which might not even be school-related, as well as the best method to target and allocate resources.

I commend the innumerable educators and decision-makers in schools, districts and states that have gone above and beyond their typical responsibilities to try and address the unprecedented consequences of COVID-19. We must build upon these efforts and devote more time, resources and capacity to ensure that diverse student voice is prioritized when meaningful decisions are being made. Aside from auditing the needs of students, student and climate surveys also provide a platform for young, future leaders to express their concerns, develop their voice and advocate for what THEY think needs to change.

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