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Student Voices on Schooling during COVID-19

By Sneha Bolisetty

Much of the narrative about school reopening in the media has centered around government actors and teachers, but there has not been much emphasis on student ideas related to returning to school. This report explores student responses from a survey of New York City K-12 students about the reopening of schools for Fall 2020. Main findings from this included:

  • 92% of respondents want in-person learning, many preferring a return to school over continuing remote learning
  • 52% of respondents have health concerns, whether it includes wanting additional health measures in the classroom, or a hesitancy to return related to health
  • 36% of respondents are concerned about cleanliness, often stating that prior to the pandemic, schools were not as clean as they would have liked, so it would be difficult to maintain cleanliness in schools when reopening
  • Students are calling for long-term changes to curriculum and social-emotional support when schools open up in the Fall
  • Students are critical of the DOE with regards to public school structure, funding distribution, and cross-classroom standards, and often do not believe that the DOE will be able to make or sustain the changes necessary to make school safe
Ttwo students learning online

Context

At the national level, school openings for the Fall 2020 semester have become headlines in both political and social environments, with many education, community, and government leaders getting involved in the conversation. In early July, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the School Superintendents Association jointly urged a safe return to school for students’ increased academic support, social-emotional development, and overall well-being (AAP 2020). Within New York City, the Department of Education has announced a plan to return to school, giving schools three programming options to choose from. These models consist of a both a fully-remote learning environment for those who request it, and a blended learning option with a rotational schedule, which the DOE defines as being “taught on-site in school for part of the week, and [attending] school remotely on the other days of the week.” This return to school in New York City will be a huge change for the nation’s largest school district.

Survey and Methods

While much of the narrative about school reopening in news articles, press statements, and recommendations is centered around government actors and teachers, there has not been much coverage of student thoughts related to school reopening. This survey provides an overview of what students are looking for with regards to Fall 2020 reopening. In the Spring of 2020, as schools were transitioning to remote learning in New York City due to COVID-19, Chalkbeat New York released a survey asking students how they believe school leaders should work toward reopening schools in the fall. There were 565 respondents in total who answered a number of open-ended questions. In June 2020, a team of staff and interns at the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative at NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research and Equity and the Transformation of Schools took anonymized responses from the survey and coded the information based on a set of themes relating to Fall 2020 school openings.

Respondents

The survey respondents were made up of students at all levels of school (elementary, middle, and high school) as well as all 5 boroughs of New York City. Overall, 70%, of respondents were high school students, with middle school respondents making up 15% and elementary school respondents making up 11% of the total respondent population. By location, 22% of the respondents were from Brooklyn and 33% were from Queens, making up the majority of respondents, with 17% or the remaining respondents being from the Bronx, 10% from Manhattan, and 5% from Staten Island. 16% of respondents came from schools with especially high levels of eligibility for free/reduced lunch and 17% of respondents came from schools with especially low levels of eligibility for free/reduced lunch [1]. Additionally, 43% of respondents come from schools with an especially high Black and Latinx population, and 30% of respondents come from schools with an especially low Black and Latinx population [2].

    Quantitative Findings & Current DOE Plans

    When asked about in-person learning and remote learning, 92% of students mentioned wanting in-person learning in some capacity, most preferring it over remote learning generally. This preference for in-person learning was seen across demographic categories including borough, school level, racial makeup of school, and student eligibility for free/reduced lunch. However, students asked for a variety of restrictions when discussing in-person learning for the Fall 2020 semester. When coding in-person learning with restrictions, researchers defined the following categories:

    • Staggered Hour Schedules - respondents who mentioned staggering in-person learning throughout the day, so students can still attend school everyday
    • Class Size/Class Space - respondents who mentioned issues with class size or class space with regards returning to in-person learning
    • Health Concerns - respondents who mentioned the use of PPE in the classroom, or any type of health considerations that should be taken into account
    • Rotating Day Schedules - respondents who mentioned that students come to school on different, predetermined days
    • Curriculum Changes/Less Tests - respondents who mentioned changes to the curriculum, or testing due to COVID-19
    Graph of in-person with restrictions versus % of total respondants

    Figure 1 above shows that a majority of students mentioned concerns or considerations with regards to class size and class space within their respective schools.

    Figure 1 above shows that a majority of students mentioned concerns or considerations with regards to class size and class space within their respective schools. In their return to school plan, the DOE has adopted a blended learning approach to school return, so there will be fewer students in the school on any given day. Within the school, the DOE has outlined in Health and Safety measures that school buildings will require 6 feet social distancing. However, there are still questions as to the specific ways schools will deal with health and safety concerns, especially in regards to keeping children apart, and how these specific guidelines will be enforced and implemented across schools, which vary to a great degree across the city. One respondent in the  survey stated a number of concerns with regards to school opening that haven’t been specifically addressed in the DOE plan, including: children not keeping masks over their nose and mouth, children not keeping their hands off their faces, and how busing and transportation could affect the spread of the virus. 

    Figure 1 also shows that 33% of respondents mentioned curriculum changes, particularly when asked about returning to school. These concerns primarily revolved around eliminating high stakes tests, embracing a simpler curriculum due to the complicated spring semester, and implementing more fair grading policies. Students also listed these concerns as changes they wanted to see in the future, likely beyond COVID, as some called for more equitable practices and a more supportive academic environment that focused on relationship building and student experiences.

    Overall, 36% of respondents mentioned cleanliness, and 52% of respondents mentioned health concerns, whether in regards to returning to school in the Fall, or general concerns they have due to COVID-19. In the DOE’s return to school plan, it is stated that schools will have increased access to hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and hand washing, that the DOE has begun ordering disposable face masks for staff and students, and that buildings will be sprayed nightly with electrostatic sprayers. Students also stated in their responses that they expected schools to be cleaner than before the shutdown, with increased cleanings being done throughout the day. As with much of the country, however, there are still concerns about the availability of cleaning supplies and PPE to keep public spaces safe and how budgetary restraints will limit the hiring of additional staff necessary to ensure regular cleanings of school buildings, which questions how the DOE plans to respond to these concerns about cleanliness and health precautions. 

    These findings were consistent across boroughs, school levels, racial make-up of schools, and free and reduced lunch eligibility, which displayed that students across the respondent population wanted to return to school, but most were concerned with class size and space, curriculum, health considerations, and cleanliness. Overall, despite the fact that students came from a variety of backgrounds, many of them still had the same concerns about school opening in the Fall.

    Qualitative Findings & Current DOE Plans

    At all levels of schooling, there has been discussion about how we can use this return to school as an opportunity to address underlying concerns about education equity. While coding, the research team pulled out statements that emphasized student feelings about reopening, and long-term changes or disappointments students have had with the Department of Education, which gave us insight into what changes students may want in their schools both during the pandemic, but also, long-lasting changes they want to see enacted.  

    Student Critiques of Remote Learning

    As seen above, a majority of respondents preferred a return to in-person learning, often citing difficulties in their remote learning experiences. Some of the respondents critiques of remote learning include:

    • Once schools are able to open again we should ditch remote learning. In my school lots of teachers just assign work and don't elaborate on what to do or bother to explain concepts and ideas. Imagine trying to teach yourself the nitrogen and phosphor cycle for the AP exam coming up in a week without any clarification. Remote learning just isn't helpful with the way its being done at my school, instead of just meeting on Mondays early in the morning for teachers to just explain how the weeks gonna look like we should have classes everyday in the afternoon so we are firstly actually awake to understand whats happening and actually have physical classes with the teacher explaining concepts and ideas that will help us do our work. The DOE regulating the amount of work that can be given out to a student would also be very helpful because a lot of teachers are taking advantage of remote learning and assigning a ton of work that's not reasonable considering that students have seven other classes that have high expectations of them.”
    • “I am extremely against continuation of remote learning. Some students are unable to manage their time because of the due dates of their assignments. There is no differentiation between school and rest. Student like me have a difficult time learning because their are may distractions and the easy access to answer on the internet does not force us to think. However, if it must continue, it can be done better if a rule is set. For example, teachers using the same program to send assignments instead of them having to go to 3 different websites to check for assignments.”
    • “The most difficult part of remote learning is the disparity between my classes. While I have a lot of work from some, others only assign one activity a week. Because of this I don’t necessarily feel like I’m in “school.”

    With both the fully remote option, and the blended learning option offered by the DOE, students will be learning in a remote teaching environment for a large part of the Fall semester. In these quotes, three ideas are highlighted: lack of support and instruction, difficulty separating school and home environments, and the amount of work that is required, which emphasize changes that need to be made in order to have students feel more positively about remote schooling. 

    Student Requests for Changes for Remote Learning

    In addition to critiques of remote learning, respondents had suggestions on how to make remote learning better for the future:

    • “If schools remain closed and remote learning continue, then I would stick to the core subjects and require teachers to teach their kids via video. At least one subject. If they focus on core subjects the teaching shouldnt last more then 2 hours and that could be done with smaller groups of 10 so the kids can have a little more attention.”
    • “School tends to struggle to capture our attention. We definitely need more project based learning, which creates self learning and helps capture the focus of the student. Lectures and lessons can be quite boring, and so online media and doing it ourselves has made me think that’s how it should be; I even learn at a faster pace versus the mindless grind of school. I also wish school would open later, from 9-11 am. Because I set my own learning schedule and get more sleep, my ability to focus on my work, and my mental health has increased greatly.”
    • “I would suggest that the teachers push us a little more because so far most of the work I’ve been getting is for review, and if we continue this next fall there will be nothing to review. They need to figure out how to actually teach us new information.”
    • “So far I feel as if I have learnt nothing throughout the 2 months there has been no school even though I attend all zoom meets and do all of the work asked of me. Currently, my biggest issue with the remote learning is communication. The lack of communication is driving my peers and I's grades down because if we have a question or problem we message our teachers about the issue and they never seem to reply. I think if we had two days to complete an assignment and had a zoom call the day after assigning the work it would be so much better as we could address our questions and concerns regarding the work directly on the call.”
    • “One of my teachers host lunch zooms, and while attendance isn't required, they're a fun way for us to all get together and talk about whatever we feel like discussing. I would love to write more about them, but essentially I think it's a great idea for all teachers to do something like this.”

    Here, respondents outline changes they want to see in regards to teaching, including increased communication between teachers and students, and a focus on core subjects with smaller groups. Due to the self-learning that many students are doing, building strong communication between educators and students while learning remotely seems to be a key issue important to students.

    Desire for more contact with Teachers

    When mentioning a preference for in-person learning, a number of students stated that they would like more direct contact from their teachers. When being asked what they wanted the school to look like in the fall, respondents said:

    • “I would like having recorded lectures and office hours with my teachers.”
    • “The only thing that should be changed is how teachers communicate with us, there should be more communication and live calls teaching us the subject.”
    • “It can be done better with more video calls with the teachers. Have the teachers teach us instead of giving us work to complete on our own”
    • “[What would make me feel more supported in school is the] constant checking up on students to see if they have enough learning materials, food to eat, and shelter. The support the system gives these students makes me feel supported myself. What would make me feel most supported is the consistency of the teacher checking up and making sure that work is getting done during this time and understanding the circumstances.”
    • “[What would make me feel more supported in school is] I think having in-person interactions with teachers.  If I have a question I have to wait for an answer by email and then if I need further clarification I have to wait again.  In school when a question is asked everyone hears it and we all hear the answer and can immediately clarify.  I’m sure the teachers are getting the same question 30 times. It’s time-consuming.”

    In the quotes above, we see students emphasizing more communication between teachers and students, especially when it comes to coursework and teaching. The desire for video calls and check-ins with the teacher displays the focus that respondents have on how to better improve their remote-learning experience, and better access the educational material they need. 

    Concerns about racial bias and discrimination

    With the rise of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments due to COVID-19 in the United States, respondents made a number of comments expressing concerns about the possible racism and discrimination that can persist in the school environment:

    • “I hope that people don't discriminate or give hate to Asian’s because I hate seeing bullying.”
    • The actions of schools leaders should take this seriously and make sure everyone stays hygienic. And make all Asians feel safe (I am not excluding others).”
    • “Will the virus be catchable, will the ice [ICE] discrimination continued post coronavirus pandemic, "It's the Chinese who brought the virus", "Sneezing or coughing in public without covering yourself", overall thinking that the pandemic was a pure joke.”
    • “Everybody might be treated differently based on race.“

    Respondents named concerns with possible discriminatory actions, particularly against Asian American students, that are reflective of the rising anti-Asian sentiments across the United States. These concerns are highlighted above, with respondents emphasizing that they hope that everyone is safe and treated like they belong, and that no bullying or discrimination will take place.

    Iillustration of hands

    Social-Emotional Support and Trauma-Based Learning

    When discussing social-emotional support, respondents had comments like:

    • "I hope schools will provide us with enough support and resources to continue with our studies and education as effectively as we can. I hope they will be more understanding of the new circumstances and know that each person is dealing with different problems and will do what they can to help in any way they can. "
    • "I hope that schools are understanding and can help us, as students, get the support we need whether that be for colleges, credits, (etc..) "

    These types of statements emphasize a need for support and understanding regarding the new circumstances. When students were asked what they hope school would look like in the fall, and how school could be done differently, additional statements emphasizing social-emotional support and trauma-based learning included:

    • "More equitable. Focused on relationships and trauma based education."
    • Less [expletive] work. I mean its crazy how much work is really given in a day. I got friends seriously hurting right now, threatening shit I though they would never threaten. these teachers and parents don't know the half of what kids go through. most of the time their excuse is always "they never tell us" but that's because when we did, you didn't listen., you brushed it off and said to grow up or that life's gonna get way harder. new's flash, we have a lot more shit going on as kids then most of you adults have going on. were trying to find ourselves and find where we stand in this world, we cant be having all of this anxiety and depression as kids.”

    In comments like these, respondents called for trauma-based education, and a focus on the fact that students are going through a difficult time. The DOE has stated that key values to their decision making include social-emotional and trauma-informed support for all students, as well as clear guidance for schools with needed flexibility to meet the needs of the community. With that being said, it is unclear how this will look and whether there are staff and resources to engage students in social-emotional and trauma-informed learning.

    Curriculum

    In addition to a call for trauma-based education, students mentioned a number of changes they wanted to see in regards to curriculum and testing.

    • “I think schools can have a simpler curriculum, as many students [find] it hard to complete everything.”
    • “Every teacher does what they want so my siblings are not getting the same quality as I am because the DOE has not enforce a standard policy on how to handle virtual learning.”
    • I hope that we get more of an opportunity to learn about topics that wouldn’t be in taught in a traditional curriculum (first aid for example) now that schools can see that teaching doesn’t have to last for six hours a day. I also hope that technology is incorporated a bit more into our lessons since students are accustomed to it now.”
    • “Clearly high stakes test are unnecessary … COVID isn't being taught and it is a historic teachable moment.”

    When discussing curriculum, students center their responses on how high stakes tests can impact them, and the ways COVID, and “non-traditional” material can be integrated into the curriculum. Although the DOE has plans for blended learning, they have not yet addressed these student concerns about testing and long-term curriculum changes.

    Student Criticisms of the Department of Education

    While students asked for support due to strenuous circumstances, some students mentioned long-standing criticism of the Department of Education and schooling in general.

    • "I feel like nothing might change, the department of education usually claims that there will be changes in the way things are done in NYC schools all the time and when we go for [ourselves] we see that nothing has changed. When the DOE announced that schools would be sanitized more before the pandemic got as bad as it did nothing changed in our schools. The classrooms were still dirty for the most part, there was still no soap in the bathroom dispensers, and hand sanitizer more than ever became non existent because we were already halfway through the school year and the school no longer had those supplies so the teacher's were the ones who had to buy disinfectants and provide sanitary amenities to their students, mind you not all teachers are the same and lots didn't have sanitizer or tissues in there classes.”
    • “Seeing how public schools are like, with these bells acting as if we work in factories. I understand this is a public school however, we should be having a time frame to get to class like we do it feels as if we are in prison and must attend at this time in order to pass. Also the fact that we’re nothing but numbers in a system.”

    These types of criticisms of the DOE, and public schooling in general, display the deep-rooted concerns that students have with the school system outside of COVID-19, and this survey was used as a way to share those concerns. More specifically, respondents point out concerns regarding funding, the structure of public education, and the existing unsanitary conditions of schools. The qualitative material in this survey complements the quantitative data by shedding light on additional concerns that respondents have with the system as a whole, in addition to their ask to return back to school

    Conclusion

    These student survey results, which were found before the release of the DOE’s back to school plan, display that students want to go back to school if and when the DOE can fully address the concerns of students, including cleanliness, health concerns, and school crowding.  The survey results also displayed deep-rooted concerns students have with the school system, including the lack of social-emotional support and resource availability, and the structure of the system in general, which have not been addressed by the DOE’s plan.

    Resources

    AAP Report
    https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2020/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-a-safe-return-to-school-this-fall/

    DOE Return to School Plan
    https://www.schools.nyc.gov/school-year-20-21/return-to-school-2020

    References

    [1] With the NYC district average of students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRPL) being 72%, we considered high eligibility to be schools with 87.8% or more students eligible for FRPL (15% above average), and low eligibility to be schools with 57.8% or fewer  students eligible for FRPL (15% below average). 

    [2] According to NYC’s Department of Education, Black students make up 26% of the total student population and Latinx students make up 41% of the total student population (67% combined). For the purposes of this analysis, we considered schools with high populations of Black and Latinx students to be schools with 80% or more students who are Black and/or Latinx. We considered schools with low populations of Black and Latinx schools to be schools with 60% or fewer students who are Black and/or Latinx.

    Research and coding for this project was conducted by Sneha Bolisetty, Carlos Angeles, Huiying B. Chan, Megan Hester, Mariah Quintero, Alex Van Biema and LaKeitha Walton, and directed by Dr. Leah Q. Peoples. Analysis was conducted by Sneha Bolisetty with support from Megan Hester.