How are students faring in pandemic? Two new surveys provide insights, hope

Two new surveys show students are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with resilience. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Two new surveys show students are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with resilience. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Researcher says, ‘The biggest finding is how resilient these kids are’

Through the tumultuous school shutdowns, the overnight move to online classes and the opening and closing of classrooms due to quarantines, the nagging question has always been: How are students coping?

Two new surveys released this week suggest kids, at least middle and high school students, are OK, perhaps not dancing in the streets, but not in bed with covers over their head laid low by the pandemic.

A poll by the National PTA and the National Education Association found 56% of students describe themselves and their family as “doing OK” when it comes to handling the pandemic. Only 16% of students report they are struggling. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll surveyed more than 1,300 students aged 13–18 — middle and high school students — and conducted focus groups with students.

“The biggest finding is how resilient these kids are,” said Missy Egelsky, GQR senior vice president. “More than half say they are doing OK. Three in 10 are doing well. Only 16% say they are struggling with this time.”

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Most students report taking their classes online, while a quarter are hybrid, meaning they have a mix of in-person and virtual lessons. Students said they are facing greater challenges with their schoolwork this year; 58% of students say they were doing well academically before the virus; only 32% believe they are doing well now.

What would help students catch up and stay on track? According to 65% of the respondents, more interaction with teachers, additional tutoring and more one-on-one time with teachers.

“But they really appreciate their teachers and feel their teachers are doing their best,” said Egelsky in a call with education journalists. “Most feel they are getting a good education, even in this pandemic time. A huge majority of these kids really trust their teachers.”

While students polled expressed a slightly higher preference for in-person classes, they remained wary of a wholesale return because of the threat of the virus to their households. “They understand the ramifications of going to school in person and they don’t want to put their family at risk. They want to be with their friends and teachers, but they are trying to be safe rather than sorry,” said Egelsky.

Those findings were reinforced by a new report from YouthTruth, a national nonprofit that conducts student feedback surveys for school improvement. In a survey of 18,000 high school students in September and October, 55% said they feel their teachers care if they’re really learning, a higher percentage than prior to the pandemic. In pre-COVID surveys, 47% of students felt their teachers really cared about their learning.

When asked if their teachers’ expectations make them want to do their best, 56% of students said “yes,” which again is higher than the pre-COVID responses from 2016 to 2019 when 51% felt that way. Students now are more likely to report their teachers don’t let them give up when the work gets hard and give them extra help when they need it.

In the focus groups that were part of the PTA/NEA survey, students shared the downsides of being home, including lack of social contact, fatigue with online classes and feeling like Zoom zombies. But others noted benefits to being marooned at home, such as the opportunity to take up cooking or running and spending time with their families.

Some liked staying in their pajamas all day and learning at their own pace. “Some of them honestly enjoy having the pressures taken off of being a teenager — cliques and school gossip and bullies are not as much of a factor now,” said Egelsky.

“From the parents and families we are talking to, students really want to be back in person,” said Leslie Boggs, the president of the National PTA on a medica call. “But there are those who have really thrived in this virtual world. They will want to continue to do that. I don’t think education will ever be the same again. We really have crossed that bridge.”

With the first full COVID semester now concluding, I asked Georgia parents and teachers for their views on how it went, whether they saw gaps in learning and whether online classes will become fixtures in their schools. Here are some of the responses:

  • I’m teaching high school chemistry and forensics online. A few of my students are hybrid, which means they do my online lessons from the school. Some students are doing better than they ever have. The lack of social distraction and behavioral issues is good for them. The gaps are mostly from lack of student engagement. This is not different than we see in the classroom. We just can’t force them to be “in class” like we would in the building. The only students failing are those that aren’t doing their work, not because they can’t or aren’t able but because they choose not to.
  • I am a virtual kindergarten teacher and it’s hard. They need books in their hands, not on a screen. They need math manipulatives and hands-on things. They need pencils and playdough and fine motor tasks. Not to mention they need social interaction to learn social skills. I’m doing everything I can but it’s not enough.
  • I’m a parent. Our teachers have done the very best they can to make a bad situation work. However, I can attest there will be gaps. I see it some already with my daughter.
  • I teach on-level and remedial 7th grade math at a Title 1 school, and I’m also a mom to an 8th grader and a 10th grader (both in advanced classes). Both of my kids are learning virtually. Their teachers teach both in-person and virtual students simultaneously, as do I. With my students, there are always gaps. Fractions, decimals, rounding, and lots of other foundational math skills are gaps every year. Seventh grade math is really a year of reviewing 6th grade math and adding a few new concepts here and there. My students always struggle to remember the 6th grade math concepts. This year it does seem a lot worse. They didn’t get that time at the end of the last school year to review and (hopefully) cement the 6th grade concepts in their brains a bit more. I can’t provide the kinds of feedback to students that I would if they were in the room with me. We can’t do group work or breakout rooms or any other sort of collaboration because of COVID and internet safety rules in our district. That is making the gaps even more difficult to fill. I think students like mine will continue to need extra support for years to come to complete their required math classes in high school and graduate.
  • I am not seeing much of a gap at all. In fact, my own children have advanced tremendously, but I worked with them during the quarantine period. Fun stuff. Planting a garden to study germination. One of my children is 2E — exceptional ability and disability — and doing better than ever. He needed the break.
  • Title 1 Middle School General Ed and English language learner teacher here. I have face-to-face kids who are failing and digital kids with As. My failure rate dramatically lowered when I adjusted and differentiated instruction to better fit a more self-directed and student-driven style — online learning has a greater impact on executive functioning. I should add that we have fun. We have icebreakers. We have discussions. We have group work. I’ve noticed that kids who share privately that pre-COVID they experienced bullying during transition times are now happy and excited to participate in Zoom chat. Remote learning came to many of us in a terrible time but could ultimately be a treasure for those children who felt isolated before self-isolation.

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