We Have No Idea What This Year Has Been Like for Our Kids

Apr 7, 2021 12:00:00 AM


One year ago, my now-kindergartener left his bustling and diverse transitional kindergarten classroom with sensory learning areas designed for academic and social skills development to set up shop in our basement laundry room for “zoom school.” Sitting to his left and right are no longer other curious children, but an equally noisy but unsociable washer-dryer pair. For each school day since last March, my young child has dutifully donned his headphones to “attend” school via a district-issued Chromebook. 

You might think this is going to be a piece about the challenges of online education for early learners. There is certainly much to say. But instead, I’d like to tell you about the humbling reality that we adults have no idea what this is like for our kids.

When nearly all of the 55 million U.S. K-12 students were sent home last March, no one knew what would be in store. Now, a year in, [pullquote]we adults have an obligation to step out of our own heads and lean in softly to the insights of those who are at the center of the COVID schooling cluster-#^&*. We need to listen to students.[/pullquote]  

How COVID is Fundamentally Changing Students’ Experiences

YouthTruth, the national nonprofit that I help lead (from the space next to the laundry/“learning” room), elevates student voices on critical issues in education, and we have long asked students about their learning experiences, social-emotional development, and well-being. We know from our national aggregate data and other studies that student engagement declines as students progress through the grade levels and that getting school culture right is hard (even in pre-pandemic times, only 1 in 3 students rated their school’s culture favorably). 

What has been harder for the education field to measure and make sense of, however, is how COVID is fundamentally changing students’ experiences. The Atlantic recently cited a staggering 74,000 papers on COVID-19 that have emerged in the short time it’s taken my six-year-old to become a zoom aficionado. Guess how many national surveys have emerged to attempt to understand how the pandemic is affecting students’ experience of learning? As of this writing, 11 (many thanks to the Center for Reinventing Public Education for their free database that tracks this!).   

So, we at YouthTruth have been studying student survey data to see what young people are telling us. Our recent report, "Students Weigh In, Part II: Learning & Well-Being During COVID-19" explores survey findings from more than half a million secondary students in 952 schools across 37 states during three time periods: pre-pandemic, spring 2020, and fall 2020. 

It is a one-of-a-kind report that I hope you read. Last month we also hosted a national discussion of the findings with panelists from all corners of the U.S.


The student voice findings from this report will also be presented on April 22 as part of the CASEL Cares Webinar Series, connecting student voice data with social-emotional learning strategies. Register to join us and to learn with and from experts in social and emotional learning on key topics during these challenging times.

The Findings Are Clear

Depression, anxiety, and stress pose significant obstacles to learning with uneven impacts on student groups, and seniors are pivoting like never before. Here are just two key themes from the report.  

  1. Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious has risen to the number one obstacle to learning. Latinx, multiracial, and Black students faced more obstacles on average than white or Asian students. Forty-six percent of students reported feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious, while 44 percent reported distractions at home and family responsibilities. Hispanic or Latinx students, multiracial students, Black students experienced significantly more obstacles than did either white or Asian students. Overall, students reported less availability from adults in school with their mental and emotional health, but more programs and services.
  2. One in four high school seniors’ postsecondary plans have changed since the start of the pandemic. Seniors who reported being more affected by the pandemic were more likely to report that their postsecondary plans had changed (36% versus 21% among their peers). Changes in seniors’ plans also varied by race/ethnicity and by socioeconomic status, as echoed in other studies. Eighteen% of white students said their plans have changed, relative to 30% of other students. 

These insights can help us adults prioritize student needs and redistribute resources for those who need them most for the rest of the academic year and to plan for fall. [pullquote]Since students are at the center of the school closure issue, why are we not centering their perspectives?[/pullquote] 

If your answer is—I’m just not sure how!—then please read on for my recommendations. 

  • Parents and guardians of young children: Ask your child every day how they are feeling. Give them space to respond. Remind them every day that you love them and that you will do everything that you can to keep them safe. If you need inspiration for how to talk to young children about difficult topics, just watch a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood re-run together (not a scientific recommendation, but it’s been working for me). 
  • Parents and guardians of secondary students: Just like with young kids (see above), check in every day. For resources on how to support emotional well-being, check out these suggestions from The Jed Foundation. 
  • Education Funders: Ask your school system partners what kind of support they need—perhaps bringing their local communities together, funding empathy interviews, listening sessions, or anonymous surveys. Support an “Educational Opportunity Audit & Blueprint for Action.” Fund more mental health counselors in schools. Prior to the pandemic, the student-to-school counselor ratio was 464 to 1, which was not enough before our nation’s children were thrown into COVID chaos. If your focus areas are on adults, fund mental health programs for teachers and school administrators (teacher mental health is linked to effective teaching strategies).  
  • Policymakers: Lay off the mandates and listen to what your communities are telling you about what they need.
  • School admin teams: See above. 
  • School Boards: If you don’t already have students on your school board, create some positions. If you have school board reps, but not a student advisory committee, that is a way to deepen the work. If student perspectives are not on your next agenda, add it. 

In the End

Everything my child needs to know in life may not, in the end, be learned in zoom Kindergarten. But to help my child navigate the uncertainty of this moment, my role needs to be one of asking good questions and really listening. I hope you’ll join me in leading through listening and putting student voices at the center. 

Sonya Heisters

Sonya Heisters is deputy director at YouthTruth, a national nonprofit based on the simple but powerful premise that when you get timely feedback from those you’re trying to serve, and really listen to that feedback to make changes, you get better. Like many educators, Sonya's love for teaching is in her DNA. Her grandmother was a principal, her mother, a high school teacher, and her brother is a celebrated middle school special education teacher. Her work in education has spanned every age range. Prior to joining YouthTruth, Sonya served as a Director at the Presidio Graduate School. Her experience in K–12 education includes work as Director of University Tutoring, as the Tutoring Program Manager for Kaplan, and as the Site Director of a K–5 program in rural CA. Sonya graduated from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA with degrees in English and Non-Profit Management of Education Programs. She completed her student teaching practicum at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. Sonya’s work on YouthTruth is deeply satisfying as she partners with educators to thoughtfully engage with student perception data to accelerate meaningful change. When she is not connecting with district and school leaders, you might find Sonya hiking along the Point Reyes National Seashore, reading the latest from Stephen PinkerAngela Duckworth, or Jack Lynch, or spending time with her husband and son.

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