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The Kids Aren’t Alright. How We Can Turn It Around in Time for Fall.

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» 2020
JULY 9, 2020

With the school year now over, students across the country are breathing a sigh of relief that the COVID-19 remote learning experiment is coming to an end – and holding their breath at the thought of having to resume online instruction again in the fall. Survey after survey has shown that kids struggled with virtual learning for a host of reasons, from no access to a computer or reliable internet, to mental health problems due to limited social interactions with friends and peers, to disruptions to daily, in-person contact with teachers and counselors.

The inadequacies of distance learning have left many students, parents and educators understandably anxious to return to normal. But with COVID cases on the rise in many states and a second surge of the virus predicted for the fall (or, in some states, not so much a second wave as a continuation of the first wave), it is likely that some form of online learning will persist. Many school districts have indicated back-to-school plans that incorporate hybrid learning, such as students attending in-person classes for half the week and studying online at home for the other half. Similarly, many higher education institutions have announced flexible plans for the fall that will include blended learning, a combination of in-person experiences alternating with synchronous and asynchronous online classes.

Now is the time for educators, parents, community leaders, policymakers, and any stakeholders invested in the education of our children to evaluate what aspects of online learning worked, what didn’t, and how to ensure we don’t repeat this fall the mistakes of last spring.

At American Student Assistance (ASA), we wanted to find out first-hand the impact of the pandemic and its resulting remote learning on kids and their plans. We reached out to our online teen community* multiple times over the past several months. Each of our prompts received approximately 150 to 200 responses from high school students nationwide. Based on their feedback, here’s a list of things to start, continue, and stop, as we support students during this difficult time:

Start providing additional support to counsel students through changing post-secondary plans

A significant 40% of the students in our online community said they are changing or are now unsure of their post-secondary plans, a finding in line with numerous other surveys. Many students are considering switching to lower-cost alternatives, for a variety of reasons, and the students impacted extend beyond just those leaving high school this spring.

Low-income students and families of color, which have been hit harder by COVID health-wise, jobs-wise and financially, are also more likely to be rethinking plans for the future. Ensuring greater remote access to guidance counselors and third-party college access professionals is key to helping our most vulnerable students find their best pathways to and through higher education in this time of uncertainty.

“After this whole pandemic and stay at home order, I’ve had a lot more free time,” said a junior from Wisconsin. “With this free time, however, I noticed that I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I don’t know what I like to do. That made me question if I really wanted to go to college after school. So, I started looking into gap year programs. Online school has been difficult, too, so I started rethinking the four years of college and started looking at two years instead.”

A senior from California added, “I don’t want to do more classes online because it’s not a good style of learning for me. If school is going to be online another semester, I’m withdrawing from a four-year because I need a better transition.”

Start prioritizing mental health support for students AND adults

When asked about their priorities during this time, most students selected mental health as their top concern, even over things like family or social engagement. Debra Harkins, PhD, psychology professor at Suffolk University, offers several resources for helping youth deal with anxiety during COVID, such as Treating Childhood Adolescent Anxiety for Caregivers, Anxiety Workbook for Teens, and How School Counselors Will Help Save Our Post Pandemic Future. But Harkins stresses that caretakers should consider their own needs as well. “We can’t begin to help others until we helpers, parents and teachers put on our own ’oxygen masks’ first,” she reminds us, so adults may also want to check out Coping with COVID-19 in Community and Coping with the Ongoing Stress of COVID-19.

Continue synchronous learning for academics and extracurriculars when possible, expanded access to teachers, and professional development for teachers on how to conduct remote learning

Many students (and teachers) indicated they liked live synchronous learning that offered real-time engagement with teachers and classmates, as opposed to recorded video sessions.

“I am an in-person learner,” explained a female 11th grader from Virginia. “I like to have my questions answered by a real person when it’s relevant to the topic instead of at the end of the video lesson. There’s a lack of motivation and drive to participate in class when it’s online.”

A 12th-grade girl from Michigan added, I’m not a fan of distance learning. I personally do better in class with visuals and the social aspect of learning. I also can’t really do my favorite classes online (ensemble music, etc.) which is really the only part I like about school.” Additionally, students indicated they want teachers to be better supported with additional training and resources for remote teaching — a professional development trend that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.

Continue to pursue policy solutions to bridge the digital divide

Many schools purchased laptops and set up Wi-Fi hotspots on buses to keep kids connected last spring. Those efforts will need to continue through the fall and beyond, as 32% of our student respondents said they needed better internet connectivity and 12% wished they had access to a tablet or laptop. Legislators should support proposals like funding for education in additional stimulus packages to help shore up state budgets, and an Emergency Connectivity Fund via the FCC’s existing E-rate program to ensure all K-12 students have access to broadband services, Wi-Fi hotspots and devices.

Stop assigning less meaningful work

Only about a quarter (27%) of those learning remotely feel it is working well for them, and just over half (54%) say it is not ideal, but they are bearing with it. Many students felt assignments were “busy work,” with 57% yearning for more creative exercises and 46% asking for better learning materials.

It’s not good, I feel like I’m not learning,” said a male high school senior from California. “I think teachers are just assigning work to keep students busy.”

A female New York high school senior echoed that sentiment: “Most of my teachers are giving more work than necessary. A lot of it is busy work and I just don’t have the mental capacity to care at all. It can be better by actually giving students, especially us seniors, a break and give more optional, fun and engaging assignments rather than mandatory tedious assignments that hold no value in the end.”

We don’t know for certain what the next academic year holds for our students, but what we do know is that we need to listen to, and learn from, their experiences. Like we do for educators and parents, we must acknowledge the challenges and obstacles for students during this time of crisis so that we are prepared for the next phase of COVID – or whatever the future holds.

*Online communities help organizations conduct market research, develop customized services and create content based on the feedback provided by users. At ASA, we’ve tapped our online community for their thoughts on topics as diverse as our career exploration tool Futurescape, COVID-19, and the protests for racial justice.

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