What Student Activists Want Teachers To Know About Virtual Learning and Reopening Schools

Mohammad Ahmadi (Photo by Juliana Gomien)

Earlier this summer, as her school district started discussing how and when to reopen schools amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, 17-year-old Chloe Pressley noticed a missing voice. She and her friends were talking about the options, of course, yet school officials had only sought input from adults, including parents and staff.

“That really concerned me honestly, because I was like, ‘I'm going to be the one who’s going to have to go to class every day and mask for, what, seven hours straight? And I'm not sure if I can do that, but nobody's asking me how I feel.’”

So Pressley got busy. The rising senior at C.D. Hylton High School in Virginia reached out to friends, circulated digital flyers and created a student voice hashtag to gather students’ input on what the fall semester should like. Then she called her school board representative.

Chloe Pressley (Courtesy of Chloe Pressley)

“She picked up right away, which was surprising,” Pressley said, and in the weeks that followed, the board incorporated student feedback into its considerations of hybrid and remote learning.

Board members aren’t the only ones who can benefit from hearing more student voices. In interviews with MindShift and at a recent journalism conference, Pressley and other high school activists shared how teachers can improve distance learning from the uneven experiences of the spring. What matters most, they said, is that virtual learning includes authentic work, social interaction and empathy for the challenges teenagers are facing during the COVID-19 crisis.

Authentic work and human connections make a difference

When schools closed last March, many districts could not ensure that all students had a computer and internet access for virtual learning. Instead, they used paper packets to replace classroom instruction and assignments. Those packets fulfilled the educational mission in word but not deed, according to Eric Luo, a rising senior at West Ranch High School in California.

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“There was just kind of busywork to fill out the rest of the year,” he said during a youth voices panel at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in July. Luo, who is a co-founder of a youth-run grocery delivery service for at-risk individuals, Six Feet Supplies, said that this fall he wants his teachers to assign “actual work rather than just packets and multiple choice tests that don't really mean anything.”

Busywork contributed to decreased motivation for many students, according to 17-year-old Krupa Hegde, a project lead for the “Coping with COVID-19 Student-to-Student Survey,” which was completed by more than 9,000 students in Kentucky in May.

On the survey, 57% of students reported that they were less motivated during emergency distance learning, and 65% reported that they were less engaged.

Krupa Hegde (Courtesy of Krupa Hegde)

Hearing from teachers can mitigate those outcomes. Students whose teachers communicated with them two or more times per week were less likely to report a decrease in motivation than students whose teachers touched base less frequently, according to the survey.

“Teacher engagement has been huge with regards to students’ perception of their motivation and engagement," said Hegde, who is a rising senior at The Gatton Academy in Kentucky. "There's a sweet spot for teachers to communicate where it's about once every day, but not too much and not too little.” 

Student activists also said they want virtual learning to include more live interaction. Zoe Monterola, Luo’s Six Feet Supplies co-founder and a rising senior at Valencia High School in California, said she wants teachers to “know how much we appreciate Zoom calls and having the personal connection with them, whether that be having open office hours or engaging online classes instead of just Google Classroom assignments.”

Synchronous classes are important opportunities for interacting with peers in a time when many young people’s social lives have been dramatically circumscribed. Social connections are, after all, “the good part of school” for many students, as 17-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi put it. Ahmadi is the communications coordinator for the youth climate action group Earth Uprising and a rising senior at Hinsdale Central High School in Illinois. He told MindShift that his workload last spring was about the same as before, but most of his classes did not meet virtually.

“We were basically on our own,” he said. To improve virtual learning, Ahmadi suggested that teachers offer 15 to 30 minutes of live instruction, followed by small group exercises or time to ask questions. 

Mohammad Ahmadi (Photo by Zamaan Qureshi)

Teens’ struggles are real

Coupled with human connections, student activists want to see empathy for the numerous and varied challenges teenagers face right now. “(Teachers) shouldn’t expect us to be at top performance. It’s hard for students to perform and think and collaborate as they did before the pandemic,” said Ahmadi. For Monterola, uncertainty around post-secondary plans was top of mind. “Being a rising senior, I'd want teachers to know that we have a lot of responsibilities and applying (to college) during a pandemic is hard. … The entire college application process has definitely been upended with the disruption in our school year from recommendations (to) extracurriculars, etcetera.”

For some students, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis is the biggest concern. In the Kentucky study, nearly one-third of students had parents who lost a job or experienced reduced hours or pay cuts since the start of the pandemic. Those students reported more worries about school, and students who took on more work themselves were most likely to spend less than one hour per day on school. Schools need to ensure that such students are supported moving forward, said Stephanie Pacheco, a member of Teens Take Charge, a student organizing group in New York City.

“Now more than ever, I think that the issues that low-income students face on a regular basis ... they have been just so extremely highlighted. And I think it is crucial for teachers to not forget that the struggle that students are facing and have been facing throughout their entire schooling, they’re very real,” Pacheco said during the EWA youth voices panel.

With empathy for those struggles comes the need for flexibility. So even though teens wanted more live engagement in virtual learning, they also advocated for making asynchronous options available to students with limited internet access or those who have jobs or family responsibilities during class times.

Seeking student voice

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As with everything during the COVID-19 pandemic, young people’s experiences will continue to change as public health conditions, the economy and family situations evolve. Responding to students’ needs will require educators to seek out student voices on a regular basis. Pressley recommended that teachers survey students before the school year begins to find out about their learning styles, schedules and other responsibilities. Hegde, too, advocated for teachers to ask students what’s working and not working, whether that’s through surveys or class discussions. In a year full of negative events, she believes that classroom spaces in which students feel free to voice those opinions — and where teachers implement meaningful changes — are most likely to result in a positive school experience.